Monday, December 6, 2010

Asperger's Syndrome and Theatre

I didn't really know anything about Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism until probably ten years ago when I had a very creative, and also slightly difficult child in my drama class. She wrote a play for me which was very good and she went into creative writing at a university when she got older. As the years have gone on, more and more kids seem to be diagnosed with this particular syndrome. Not being a doctor, I don't know the particulars of this condition but as a drama teacher I always see wonderful growth in these children when participating in acting classes.

Children with Asperger's Syndrome can use theatre as a way of developing their social ability, of learning the rules of communication. Since Asperger's kids are socially handicapped, being unable to read people's faces and being unable to have normal conversations, Improvisation and playing characters can help greatly in developing a child's ability to deal with other people.

Kids with Asperger's need to be comfortable with their surroundings. They need to know that they are not going to be forced into anything, They need to participate in their own time and at their own pace. As a matter of fact, when writing plays for kids in our acting classes, I often write monolgues for kids with Asperger's because they are usually very clear, very well-spoken and since they don't relate well, a monologue allows them to participate without forcing them into social situations which they are not equipped to handle.

It is an amazing metamorphosis to see kids with Asperger's become socially successful after being involved with theatre for a while. Theatre does not seem to work with low functioning autistic kids, but as Asperger's seems more prevalent than past years, there are often a few kids with autism taking acting classes. Sometimes Asperger's is associated with other conditions as well which makes the process more difficult. The ability to read people becomes less important when a child is playing a role because the script tells the child how to react. The ability to read people becomes less important if the situations are less threatening, less apt to cause anxiety, especially if everyone in the class is pursuing a common goal, like working together to create a play.

My favourite story is about a kid who came to take acting classes and he wouldn't participate. He wouldn't do anything. But he certainly enjoyed watching the other kids perform. In drama, you can't push kids. They have been pushed all their lives and usually for the benefit of someone else's sense of peace and quiet. Not only did this boy have Asperger's but he had Cerebral Palsy as well. So after about a year, his dad came up to me and said he wasn't participating, that maybe he should pull him from the class. The problem was, his child was really enjoying the classes, but he didn't seem to be learning anything. I said I know, but when he's comfortable, when he's ready, he will participate. He ended up doing a brilliant scene of the Odd Couple with another autistic child as well as being class valedictorian at his school, as well as developing a hilarious stand up routine, as well as getting into university for drama as well as joining a local wrestling circuit. And the great thing as with all kids with Asperger's, they are completely accepted in acting classes.

They can get anxious when their routines are altered, but when they find a place they can trust then some amazing things start happening. I am sure that whatever discipline accepts them the way they are, I am sure that discipline will do amazing things for children with Asberger's. Involved as I am with drama, I find that Asperger's kids exhibit a profound development when involved with acting classes and theatre.


Unknown said...

I'm totally on board with inclusion but I struggle with a couple of things. I want to put together shows with the best actors and make the most professional show I can at my high school. This could include my students with aspergers or high functioning autistics but they don't seem to audition well. Especially with cold scenes it can be difficult to see what they are really capable of. Any suggestions on auditions?
Also, in production I've had issues where a student couldn't recover when something didn't go as planned, breaking character, stopping the scene etc. Any suggestions on how to work with students especially those with aspergers on how to make it through these difficult moments?

Anne Marie Mortensen said...

Well, it can be an adventure. I think the main thing is if the child wants to do it, if they get something out of it. Certainly there can be bad moments. Asperger's kids need a safe routine environment. You have to be consistent with them and they may not like it but that way they will trust you. By the time they reach high school they have been socialized to some extent. Theatre gives these kids a chance to try on masks, to try on different characters, as they learn how to function in our world. I have found that many great actors don't audition well, so I de-emphasize that part of it because dyslexic kids don't audition well either. I think empathy with Asperger's kids is sometimes learned behaviour, and not always heart-felt. Many autistic kids can't act and react to other kids on stage. If 90 per cent of acting is reacting, then they fall down a little bit there. But what they do brilliantly is monologues. For instance I am always giving Asperger's kids stage bits that minimize their interaction with others because that interaction can be the source of emotional trouble. Other kids can be too unpredictable. I tend not to use kids with Asperger's as a method of inclusion, I tend to use them when they are better than other kids for a particular part. I have had high-functioning autistic kids that don't work out, but that's what makes theatre interesting. It is a kaleidoscope of different personalities and abilities.


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