When curtain call begins for my students, the look of pride on their faces is magical. The beaming faces of their parents, though, tell a fuller story. I teach theatre to children and young adults on the autism spectrum, and many times the concept of a full theatrical production seems like an unattainable goal to families. Although they see potential and excitement in their children, often they voice concerns about children who are rigid thinkers, who have limited verbal ability, or who have trouble playing with others.
Yet with every program, my students teach me about the joys and challenges of theatre, but most importantly its vital role in helping individuals on the autism spectrum feel comfortable engaging with others. In each program I teach, my staff and I work with the children to develop a play entirely of their own making, including characters they love, stories they respond to, and music they want to sing. There are times when it’s lyrical chaos, but the finished product is, without fail, always a testament to the unbelievable creativity and potential of our students.
As therapies have grown and developed with our increased understanding of the autism spectrum, we’ve seen a movement toward the incorporation of play. DIR/Floortime, Social Skills groups, and play-based ABA all target the social deficits and communication challenges unique to individuals on the spectrum.
Research literature, too, reflects this shift. In a 2003 literature review in the UK, 40% of the studies analyzed cited the relationship of play to developmental skills like theory of mind, language and joint attention (Williams, 2003). Specifically, they suggest correlations between play (defined in different studies individually as exploratory behaviors, turn-taking games, back-and-forth games and joint object engagement) and development of problem-solving abilities, early communication skills, comprehension, and understanding of social rules, including relating to others and regulation of affect. Further, in a 1995 study, McCune found that the start of symbolic (pretend) play directly preceded language development in a specific way, with singular play instances preceding single word utterances, sequenced play instances preceding word combinations, and planned play preceding short sentences and phrases.
The beauty of pure play is that it comes without expectations. In theatre, there is no right answer. So, by inviting young people struggling with the benchmark-oriented nature of structured interventions into a place where there is no measure of “success,” we invite them into a place where “failure” becomes an impossibility. Thus we are creating a safe space to explore the often scary terrain of play.
Many of the challenges that come to individuals on the autism spectrum (e.g. a rigid adherence to routines, perseverating on one particular interest, and a misunderstanding of social cues and how one’s behaviors and communications can affect relationships) are addressed by play. Further, beyond the gains that play encourages when left to its own devices, we can harness play and effectively use it to target these areas of deficit in an engaging, enjoyable, and lasting way.
Think about your child’s routine. It can be an overwhelming and anxiety-inducing task to alter it; the ability to “roll with the punches” isn’t something that can be taught overnight. In theatre, we counter this with the principle of “Yes, and.” In a scene, when your partner makes a statement or presents an idea, your only rule is that you say, “Yes, and.” You accept their idea as good and true, and you add your own idea to it. During a recent character exercise, Steven chose to be a stubborn werewolf king looking for a treasure on his own and was intent on sending whoever wouldn’t cooperate to the dungeon. On the other side of the room, Michael had chosen to be a leprechaun. I approached Steven and asked if he thought there was anyone in the room who might be able to work with him to find the treasure. With gentle guiding and working within the principles of “yes, and,” Steven was able to see that a leprechaun could be a great ally in a search for gold. He began accepting that his ideas can adapt with the input of the people around him; the improvised scenes between Steven and Michael became a part of the final script. A werewolf’s search for treasure isn’t your child’s bedtime routine, but by stretching the muscles of pretend during play, we create a ripple effect that generalizes into daily life.
When I first met Alex a few years ago, it was difficult to have a conversation with him about anything not related to his great passion: music. Alex knows every single word to every single Johnny Cash song that has ever been written. A rehearsal hall is a collaborative environment, though, so our goal was to build on his love for Johnny Cash while accounting for the many different views in our group. By gradually targeting small changes, we were able to make significant adjustments. In our first play together, Alex portrayed a superhero whose power was his ability to play the mandolin. He sang a song to the tune of a Johnny Cash song but with different words. This is ENORMOUS growth for a kid who views those lyrics as sacrosanct. In our second play, he played an old country singer who sang an original song. And in our current play, Alex picked a magnifying glass from our costume chest and cast himself as a detective named Jackie Chan who is helping a king search for his lost treasure.
A year and a half ago, Alex was a child whose intense focus on one specific man and his music made it very difficult for him to find any sort of conversational common ground with our other participants. Through small, playful, and enjoyable steps, we have been able to break enough of that focus to help him find other things that give him the same sense of pleasure and allow him to interact with others.
Perhaps the most important effect of participation in theatre, though, is in the realm of communication. Theatre is a universal form of expression and there is something here for everyone, regardless of comfort with verbal language. First, theatre plays with emotion. By examining a scene, actors are able to understand the feelings and behaviors of their characters without the immediate stress of being directly involved with the situation (much like using a Social Story at school or home). Then, actors begin to embody those feelings: What does it look like when you’re sad? When you’re happy? When you’re angry? When you’re scared? Kids learn to identify those emotions in themselves and in others while protected by the fact that it’s all pretend. And together the ensemble deals with those imagined feelings while scripting the scene – What can we say to a character who’s feeling anxious? What kinds of things help you when you feel that way? – so that kids can better handle those moments when they’re happening for real.
In plays, like any story, events happen because of the behaviors of the characters. So in the development of a play, participants learn that behaviors have consequences and that an adjustment in behavior can often change what happens next. When interacting this way, words often cease to matter. Emotion is conveyed through facial expression, gestures can help communicate relationships, and a movement towards or away from another character can speak volumes about feeling. In many of our programs, I see participants grow in their language skills and, equally important, I see students who struggled with nonverbal communication grow in their ability to alter their vocal and facial expression to convey their character’s journey.
Take Justin and Kevin: Though in our program last year, Justin’s verbal skills were limited to repeating phrases and answering short questions, through physical explorations and “interview” style games about things he loved, we were able to come up with a simple character—a museum painting of the greatest baseball player ever. He loved practicing his swing, and, since he was absent for the final performance, we used film as a medium for him to appear onstage so he could have many takes in which to practice his short lines. In his next program, Justin returned with a greater sense of confidence. He created a character himself, a cranky old sea captain with a phenomenal grumpy face. His lines are longer, and his verbal abilities have grown immensely.
Alternatively, Kevin possesses stronger verbal skills, but struggles with understanding the viewpoints of others and why he sometimes needs to adjust his behavior to account for their feelings. His group had written a script about a prankster and her principal, with Kevin as the principal. While working on script analysis, character emotions and objectives, Kevin initiated a conversation about his wife, suggesting that perhaps they’d gotten into a fight that morning. A short conversation illuminated Kevin’s understanding that a fight would make him feel frustrated, thus impacting his anger level with the students’ pranks, while a positive morning would perhaps make him less inclined to punish the student. The conversation ended with Kevin exclaiming, “So I guess we had a fight this morning, because it makes more sense with the script.” The gains here can be looked at through an academic lens: he’s learned writing and reading comprehension. Through a theatrical lens, he’s just completed conservatory-level script analysis. But on a much more important level, Kevin’s expressed an understanding of how things going on in a person’s life can affect their interactions. He’s gained empathy.
It has been said that great education is special education; it is the role of any good educator to adapt their methods to reach the child in whatever way he/she needs. Every single person, regardless of age, language, or (dis)ability, has within them something that they want heard and every therapy has the goal of helping unlock that potential in our students. Theatre adapts naturally, reaches students right where they are, and gives them the tools to help them share without the pressures of a traditional educational environment.
Perhaps the most harrowing discovery in play research can also be the most powerful in inciting change in how we think about and use play. In a 1990 study, Dawson, et al. found that, “In free play situation infants and young children with autism were significantly less likely than developmentally matched children to combine smiles with eye contact in a way that conveyed communicative intent and to smile in response to their mother’s smile. Mothers in response were less likely to smile at their children and showed fewer smiles overall.” The best part about play is that it’s reciprocal, but it’s also the catch-22: If we believe that our students will have difficulty with play, then that will be the case. But if we look at them and only see their unlimited creative potential, however differently they may communicate it to us, then we set them up for nothing but success. It may be more one-sided or require more compromise at the beginning, but your child will grow in his reciprocity. Everyone can play.
To protect the anonymity of Daytime Moon’s participants, all names have been changed.
Jenna Gabriel holds her BFA in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with concentrations in Applied Theatre and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies and is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree is Intellectual Disability/Autism at Teachers College, Columbia University. Jenna is the co-founder and Executive Director of Daytime Moon Creations, a nonprofit organization that offers recreational theatre programs to children and young adults with a wide spectrum of special needs. For more information, please visit www.daytimemooncreations.org or email Jenna at email@example.com.
Dawson, G., Hill, D., Spencer, A., Galpert, L. & Watson, L. (1990) “Affective Exchanges between young autistic children and their mothers”, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychiatry 18: 335-45.
McCune, L. (1995) “A Normative Study of Representational Play at the Transition to Language”, Developmental Psychology 31:198-206.
Williams, E. (2003) “A Comparative Review of Early Forms of Object-Directed Play and Parent-Infant Play in Typical Infants and Young Children with Autism”, SAGE Publications and the National Autistic Society Vol. 7, No. 4: 361-377.