Ventriloquism by a Boy With Asperger Syndrome

by Kenneth McGraw, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

As part of a qualitative methodology course at the University of Ottawa in the Faculty of Education, graduate students were invited to conduct a “pilot research study” employing one of the five traditions of inquiry identified by Creswell (1998). Struck by the phenomenological approach, I chose an “incident” of interest to me – the case of a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who had used a ventriloquist’s puppet to communicate in an unusual way with his family, friends and ultimately – himself.

As a classroom teacher in a special education classroom years ago, I had used close-up magic, comedy and ventriloquism to lighten up the room. Like many teachers, however, I had not yet explored the potential benefits of student-led ventriloquism or puppetry.

The pilot research study came from an experience that occurred last year when a friend from the United States contacted me about her son Christopher†, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who expressed that he wanted “to throw his voice”. Valerie asked me where she could access resources for her son. I sent out a few e-mails to other ventriloquists and within a week Chris was given two professional grade puppets, instructional materials and letters of encouragement from entertainers around the world.

I then received an emotional phone call from Val. Apparently Chris was speaking “differently” with his new friend Greg (he had instantly named the puppet) and Val was quite clearly overwhelmed by this experience. I made a mental note of it and decided that some day, perhaps I would try and understand how (if at all) student-led puppetry could be beneficial to learning.

Wondering if the character “Greg” had served some psycho-dynamic function for Christopher outside of his usual repertoire of communication, I read some of the literature related to “symbolic play” and decided that perhaps the puppet had created a “symbolic character reference” (what we might otherwise call an “imaginary friend”) through which Christopher felt more comfortable exploring certain subjects. I had experienced my own sense of freedom in using puppet characters to express what is popularly called “alter ego” (a phenomenon described by Paul Winchell and others) and believed strongly that characters allow one to suspend introversion – at least temporarily. Chris’ experience was, a year later, to become the subject of my pilot research study.

Normally a phenomenological study involves interviewing many subjects about the same type of phenomenon. For this pilot study, however, the goal was simply to apply one (in this case Moustakas’) methodology strictly within a limited number of interviews. It is important to note therefore that since I was limited to interviewing Valerie and Christopher about the phenomenon, we cannot call my study “valid” in the strictest sense of the tradition. In my view it revealed some interesting findings that were worth further investigation.

I bracketed the following presuppositions prior to conducting the recorded telephone interviews for transcription and analysis. I speculated that Christopher may have experienced: a novel sense of “power”; a “symbolic character” as an abstraction of his own personality (an alter ego); this symbolic character as a point of reference, creating a “safe distance” from himself that could change the quality of his verbal expression; and a compartmentalization of his attention (“splitting” his attention); and, “perspective shifting” within his verbal expression such that he might learn new things.

My findings were that Christopher had indeed used the ventriloquist’s puppet to split attention, to develop a character or “symbolic voice” through which to communicate with others and himself, and to “perspective shift” using this character. However, I had not predicted the degree to which he identified with the character as “a friend”, a “helper” or “someone” that he could discuss things with for the purposes of reality-checking socially appropriate behaviour.

Christopher (and Val) very clearly indicated that “Greg” could be useful as a learning partner. Chris had used Greg to explore “taboo subjects” such as his feelings about his mother’s new partner – his step-father. He felt enough emotional safety to openly tease and joke with his mother and his step-father about various dynamics of their new family structure. The “splitting”, for Chris at least, was quite “real” in the sense that he considered the character “Greg” a friend, and described him as “another person in the room”.

Both he and his mother felt that “Greg” could be exploited educationally to teach Chris appropriate social skills through role-playing and reflective dialogue with the character. Since Chris genuinely regarded the character of “Greg” as a friend, someone that he could engage in dialogue with, there may be tremendous potential in terms of reflective learning for appropriate social behaviour if case study or role-playing activities were designed for Chris and “Greg” to explore together.

Perhaps one of the most significant statements from Chris, in my view, was the claim that “Greg” could act as a helper to him; helping him “get things right” in his head. This statement underscores the challenge facing children with Asperger’s Syndrome in terms of being able to gauge the appropriateness of their own social behaviour. It illustrates, to my thinking, how powerful the use of a “symbolic character reference” could be to a child who struggles with saying or doing the right thing in the presence of peers. If “Greg”, through highly structured, reflective learning activities, could be exploited to help Chris create a repertoire of appropriate responses to his social world, this would be of tremendous benefit to him.

While I cannot claim – given the limitations of this study – that the use of symbolic character will result in pedagogical benefits to Christopher or anyone else, I do believe that there should be further investigation into this type of application. To “throw one’s voice”, and through this discover aspects of oneself that might otherwise remain unconscious, is a liberating experience. For Christopher, it meant the discovery of a wonderful friend – himself.
References

A.P.A. (2000) Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental – Fourth Edition (DSM-IV-TRTM). American Psychiatric Association.
Connor, S. (2000) Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. Oxford University Press
Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Demar, B. (2004). Interview with the Master of Sight and Sound – Bill
DeMar on July 20th, 2004.  Canadian Ventriloquism Association:
Fort Mitchell, KY.
Dempsey, I. & Foreman, P. (2001). A Review of the Education
Approaches for Individual with Autism.  International Journal of
Disability, Development and Education. Vol. 48, n.1
Lorraine-McCune, N. (1978). Methodological Issues in Studying Symbolic Play. NJ: Rutgers.
Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Voyat, G. (1982). Symbolic Play in the Treatment of Autism in Children. NY: New York Education Quarterly Vol. 13, n.4
Todd, Z. (1996). Metaphor, Play & Drama: The Role of the Symbolic
in the Development of Sociolinguistic Competence. Current Issues in
Language and Society Vol. 3, n.1
Winchell, P. (1993). Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit. [Video]. April Enterprises. Van Nuys, CA.
Wulff, S. (1985). The Symbolic and Object Play of Children with
Austism: A Review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Vol.
15, n.2

† The names “Christopher” and “Valerie” are fictitious and are used to
protect the confidentiality of the participants in the research study.

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