Pushing through life’s obstacles

Posted: February 23rd, 2018 | Features, Top Stories | No Comments

By David Dixon

Autism doesn’t stop this La Mesa woman from taking the stage

Heather Rose Atkinson has overcome a great deal of adversity throughout her life. The 24-year-old La Mesa resident is on the autism spectrum and, to this day, suffers epileptic seizures.

Heather Rose Atkinson will perform as Mrs. Bucket in Arms Wide Open’s production of “Willy Wonka Jr.” (Photo by Ginger Cohen)

The youngest of eight siblings, Heather is the only child in her family with a major disability. “I was sometimes getting misjudged by others as a kid,” she said.

Fortunately, she continues to live a good life through hard work and the help of caring men and women.

A positive and supporting influence for her is the social services organization, Toward Maximum Independence (TMI), which assists people with developmental disabilities. They aid Heather by supplying her with Tailored Day Services — a program through California’s Department of Development Services (DDS) that “provide opportunities for increased integration and inclusion, as well as further opportunities for the consumer to develop or maintain employment/volunteer activities, and pursue postsecondary education,” according to a fact sheet on the DDS website.

Someone who shares a lot of history with Heather is the TMI division manager, Cathena Ferrero.

Originally, TMI helped Heather with career exploration and career development. “Atkinson wanted to find work and she hopes to start her own business,” Ferrero said. “She’s really into flowers, and through career exploration, interviewed owners of floral shops.”

In addition to being involved with TMI, Atkinson continues to perform in musicals presented by Arms Wide Open (AWO). Productions put on by the organization feature cast members who have various types of disabilities.

Atkinson (top right) with fellow cast members of “Willy Wonka Jr.” (Courtesy Olga Gun Photography)

Atkinson had heard about AWO through a close friend. “When my friend suggested that I join the program, I wasn’t in a good place with my disability,” she said. “I felt like I had a better handling of my disability in 2013, and I have loved AWO ever since.”

Her fifth show with AWO is an interpretation of “Willy Wonka Jr.,” based on Roald Dahl’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and the classic family movie, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Atkinson is cast as Charlie’s adoring and encouraging mom, Mrs. Bucket. Atkinson’s mother will be doing the hair and makeup for the uplifting event, which will be playing next month at the Lyceum Theatre.

The director of “Willy Wonka Jr.,” Chris Rubio, is the founder of AWO and empathizes with Heather and the rest of the ensemble. He was inspired to work with people with special needs, partially because his brother has low-functioning autism.

Following the run of “Willy Wonka Jr.,” Atkinson plans on taking a break from performing to focus on classes at AWO and other opportunities. This summer, she’ll be working at the San Diego County Fair with a Willy Wonka wedding-themed setup. Wonka is a perfect choice for the setup, because the theme for the summer, “How sweet it is,” focuses on candy.

According to Ferrero, a major reason why Atkinson continues to do so well is because of her family. “I think she has a lot of support from them,” she said.

Sadly, her epilepsy does keep her from seeing too many members of her family at once. “Part of her disability is that a lot of people and a lot of noise can cause a seizure,” Ferrero said. “Her family completely understands that she can only spend a certain amount of time doing group activities before going to her room. They accept that, because that’s part of who she is as a person.”

A positive aspect of Atkinson’s personality, one that she shares with her family, is a passion for creativity. “They have done a great job of encouraging her that she can do anything that she puts her mind to in general,” Ferrero said.

Ferrero is very proud of how far Atkinson has come. “Our programs at TMI are designed for our clients to live full and active lives in their community,” she said. “I think that Heather is a perfect example of that goal.”

With so many accomplishments, Atkinson seems destined to continue growing significantly as a person. “I’ve come a long way,” she said.

“Willy Wonka Jr.” will be performed at the Lyceum Theatre March 2 through March 11. For tickets or more information, visit or call1-619-579-6197.

Dave Dixon is a freelance theater and film writer. Reach him at

Leave a Comment