Drama & Autistic Children
Before I start, I'd like to say that I'm not an expert in autism by any means. However, over the past 15 years, I have taught a great many children on the Autism Spectrum so I have seen firsthand how autistic children can benefit from the kind of games and exercises we do at Perform.
My first experience of working with a child with autism did not go smoothly - largely because the parents hadn't told me he was autistic (something which is more common that you might expect). They desperately wanted him to do drama but were worried that I would not want to have him in the class after he had been judged as too disruptive by several other schools.
This little boy would not listen to any instructions, would not make any eye contact with me and simply ran around and shouted out all the time. Since he didn't respond to any of my normal techniques and wouldn't stay within ?class boundaries?, I knew that something was up. I had many conversations with his parents giving them every opportunity to be open with me but it was a few painful weeks before they finally told me that he was autistic.
Once I knew this, I did some research, spoke to his school teacher and we started to make real progress. For example, he found making eye contact extremely difficult but this improved enormously when he was pretending to be someone else and in ?character'.
These days, parents with children on the autism spectrum are often encouraged to bring their children to drama classes as it can really help to develop their social skills. While the field of Drama Therapy for autism is still quite new and there are very few experts, those that I have spoken to all believe that mainstream drama teachers have many of the skills required to help.
In particular, I have seen drama games be very effective at helping autistic children:
- Improve self confidence
- Recognise emotions in others
- Identify their own emotions
- Work as part of a group
- Follow directions and instructions.
Often, autists are verbal but don't have the skills to speak and interact socially. Sometimes, they repeat other people's words verbatim and children with autism can often recite speeches and dialogue in exactly the same way as the original. Drama can give verbal individuals a safe setting for developing these skills and this is what we do in every Perform session.
I remember one little girl I taught who had very poor communication with her peers and teachers. Her parents brought her to my class with a written report into her background, how she reacted to different situations and how best to deal with her effectively. Despite this comprehensive document, nobody had mentioned that she was an incredible singer. Once she was singing in character, she could communicate beautifully. We decided to work intensively with her on this and, bit by bit, her daily life at school and with her family started to improve.
I know from talking to parents that having an autistic child can be challenging and emotional but, in my view, the most important thing a parent can do is to be open, honest and transparent about their abilities and difficulties as early as possible. My first experience was so hard because I didn't know that the child was autistic and my reactions to his behaviour were wrong. Once I knew, I was able to use different and more suitable approaches which were much more successful.
Not all autistic children are suitable for mainstream drama classes like Perform of course, but by seeking advice at the earliest opportunity and by being open with the teachers, the child stands the best chance of getting the support and opportunities they deserve. If you know or care for an autistic child, you might also consider our small group or one-on-one classes Private Perform which can be specially designed around the needs of an individual child or group.