Improvisation for Autism

One thing I’ve learned over the last fifteen years of raising my twins with autism is the power of being oblique.

After one son bombed out of a series of social skills classes, I felt like I may as well make a little pile of money and burn it. Even worse, the experiences made him feel like a social failure. 

But then he took an improvisation class. Suddenly, he was learning the give and take of communication, how to read someone’s body language and vocal inflection and respond accordingly. Gone was his standard monologue about his special interest which had his would be conversational partner eyeing the door. He discovered how to be spontaneous and he had fun.

Improvisation is an underused tool for addressing the social deficits of individuals with autism. 

Sandy Bruce, an Atlanta grandmother of a boy on the autism spectrum, is helping to change that by founding a specialized improv program called Shenanigans. Bruce describes Shenanigans as a community-based program of applied theater that uses the techniques of improv to recognize and identify social cues through body language, facial expressions and voice. In addition to learning specific social skills children in the program often discover they have a great sense of humor as they get a chance to lose their rigidity and tap into their creativity. They use their bodies in new and expressive
ways and they get to be part of a group of individuals like them, forming friendships around a shared activity.

High-functioning individuals on the spectrum are already known as great mimics with startling memories. Coupled with new found skills learned in improvisation class, they could become extraordinary actors.

Now this leads me to challenge someone to reach out to our children on the low-functioning end of the spectrum and create an non-verbal improv program for them. If the children and teachers knew sign language, I bet it could be done. Some of the most powerful and amazing improv I’ve ever seen was done by The National Theatre of the Deaf, who may be able to lend their expertise. 

Sometime the world of autism can seem bleak. But amidst all the autism stories filled with anguish, a beam of light shines through. That light is the power of creative self-expression to improve the quality of life for all children with autism.