Setting the Stage for Social Success - Autism Awareness

Setting the Stage for Social Success

By Cindy B. Schneider

Persons diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) lack the understanding of nonverbal communication that so many of us take for granted. A nod of the head, a smirk, a change in voice tone is so often misinterpreted or totally missed by those with this diagnosis. If you do not read these non-verbal signals, you are not likely to send the appropriate non-verbal messages either. Additionally, youngsters with AS often interpret language literally and miss the more abstract references. These youngsters often have difficulty building relationships with their peers. For this reason many of these individuals also suffer with poor self-esteem. Yet traditional “social skills” programs have not been very successful in teaching these capable individuals the skills they need in our social world.

After over 20 years as a special educator and autism consultant and 20 years as a children’s theater director, an exciting idea began to form. The idea combined my lifelong passion for theatre with my desire to help students with AS and related diagnoses improve their social understanding and awareness. The program developed over the next several years, and became know as ACTING ANTICS. Six years later, the Acting Antics Art Center was born. The center now offers programs for preschoolers through adulthood, at a variety of developmental levels. The response from participants and families has been extremely positive.

Although we offer many levels of classes, the focus of this article will be on our classes that are designed for the youngsters and adults with higher cognition and language skills, and social deficits such as seen in high-functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome. After all, what is acting all about? It is about reading and portraying emotions by using your voice as well as non-verbal communication. It is about acting and reacting. It is about developing a relationship with other actors onstage. It is about interpreting the language of a script. Is that not a perfect match for students with the social deficits mentioned above?

It is important in these classes that everyone is made to feel entirely comfortable in the first session. Activities will include on whole group games, and simple activities designed to put actors at ease and not put anyone on the spot. As the instructors get to know the actors, and the actors get more comfortable with one another, the bar is raised and actors are gradually asked to leave the comfort zone and take some risks.

Humor is an essential tool in our workshops. It is often said that people with HFA and AS do not understand humor, which often involves multiple meanings or wordplay, which can be very abstract. However, if taught how to interpret humor, these individuals often have a profound response to the humor in these abstractions, and are eager to grow their repertoires of puns, jokes and the like.

Our instructors teach some of our basic prefects in the initial class. First they review the two universal rules of acting. The first is “Never hurt another actor”. While discussing that rule, our actors tend to discuss staged fighting and special effects. Then actors are asked if it is possible to hurt an actor in a way other than physically. Discussion ensues about hurting feelings, or being disruptive while someone is performing, or being hurtfully critical of someone’s work. The second rule is “Listen to the director.” Actors are asked what they think would happen to a movie if all of the actors did exactly what they wanted, chose their own parts, and said whatever they wanted to say. Often we will talk about a current movie, and the actors get a clear picture of the chaos that could have resulted if no one was at the helm. These are the only two rules we need in acting class, because they cover everything!

Next the students are introduced to the “Big 3.” These are 1) vocal tone and volume, 2) body language, and 3) facial expression. These are depicted with words and drawings on a poster that hang in the theater. Often this is introduced by having the instructor make a grand entrance into the group. The instructor will stomp into the room, scowling and growling with arms crossed. He/she saunters over to the group, saying in a low, grouchy, and unconvincing voice, “I am so happy to see you all here today.” Generally, because it is so exaggerated, the actors recognize the ridiculousness of the words and have a good laugh. The instructor will then ask if the actors believed that he/she was happy to see them. They will then be led to identify the specifics of the instructor’s non-verbal cues that belied the words uttered. At this point the instructor will often have one of the actors demonstrate a more positive entrance. We then review the changes in the “Big 3” that made it believable the second time.

Reading and utilizing the “Big Three” becomes a focus of our sessions, but there are many other skill areas that are targeted through the theater activities. These include many of the executive function skills that are difficult for so many individuals with neurological differences. These include skills such as initiating and sustaining a task, organizing and prioritizing, shifting from one thing to another. The goal is for very actor to be successful in each activity, and that success is huge in terms of building self-esteem. Actors work in partners and in groups with instructors facilitating cooperation and flexibility, both of which are difficult skills for individuals on the autism spectrum to master.

Actors participate in some icebreakers and warm-up games, designed to increase their comfort level and begin interactions with one another. These activities also assist the instructors in getting to know the actors before assigning scenes. In subsequent classes, the actors are assigned partners and are sent off to work on short scripted scenes. The adults circulate to facilitate, and then the actors regroup to perform the first ‘public’ reading of their scene. There is discussion about what it means to be an audience member, and the expectation that the actors will observe and make positive comments about their fellow actors’ use of the “BIG 3.” Actors will continue to rehearse these scenes throughout the sessions in preparation for the final performance.

The scenes we use in our classes range widely in reading level, abstract language, social topics, and character development. Antics instructors are encouraged to modify the scenes to the specific needs of the actors, as the scenes were written by this author. The group will also work on a larger skit that involves all of the actors. These are usually shorter, silly skits that tend to have a punch line. The actors love these, and it really gives them a chance to work together as a company. These usually involve some costuming and props, which adds to the fun!

Other activities involve improvisational activities that again have the actors working in a small group. One such activity is called “Slow News Day” in which each group comes up with its own newscast. In another improvisational activity called “Sell Your Partner,” in which the actor conducts a structured interview of a partner, and then develops a sales pitch about his/her partner, using a ‘used car salesman’ persona. This activity is a great way for actors to learn about another person, and to begin to think about their own strengths and differences.

On the final day of class, the actors present a “showcase” for family and friends. The showcase consists of demonstrations of many activities, performances of the scenes and skits, and presentation of one of the improvisation activities. This is a great culmination of the workshop, and a real self-esteem builder for the actors.

Through these and many other activities, the actors have a wonderful time interacting with their peers, and working on their social deficits, all in the name of theater. Many individuals with AS spend years being dragged to “social skills” groups in school or in the community. They often know that they don’t “get it”, and hate going once again to a group that focuses on what they do not do well. It is much more effective to find a program that is fun and activity-based, and build the social cognition skills into that activity. Acting is a perfect vehicle for this as it intrinsically works on interaction as
the integral part of the craft.

Parents and students have responded tremendously to this program. One parent commented after being in the next room during his son’s first session, “I have never before seen my son engaged and laughing in a group of peers for two solid hours. Thank you.” Students who have reportedly ‘failed’ in many other situations have been successful in our theater program.

School districts in eastern Pennsylvania have been getting on board with this approach to teaching social cognition, and that is most exciting. Three districts brought our program to the district for Extended School Year instruction, and five others paid to have youngsters attend our summer programs. One Chester county district has brought the Acting Antics in during the school year as a pilot program in social instruction. Special educators will be trained in the program and will be coached the following year by this author.

The Acting Antics program has been run in five different counties, and each session has been amazingly successful. There is a tremendous need to bring this program to many communities and schools, so that more individuals can reap the recreational and social benefits. These youngsters have so many gifts that stay hidden far too often. My mission is to teach professionals how to run this program in local communities and schools. The world is indeed a stage, and we need to provide our youngsters with the tools they need to flourish on that stage!

Cindy Schneider’s book, ACTING ANTICS, a theatrical approach to teaching social understanding to kids and teens with Asperger Syndrome, was published in 2007 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing, and has a foreword written by Dr. Tony Attwood. Cindy has presented her techniques to parents and professionals throughout the United States and in Canada. Cindy runs the Acting Antics program in eight-week sessions during the school year for students of all ages. Acting Antics also conducts summer camp programs for a variety of age and ability levels.

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