Drama – A Social Skills Teaching Tool

“I am confused by life, and I feel safe within the confines of the theatre”

            Helen Hayes

A theatre stage may seem an unlikely place to teach social skills to highly anxious aspies.  Then again, maybe not.

Hans Asperger seemed to think there was merit in the idea of using drama to teach social interaction.  His program director, Sister Viktorine, used theatre techniques in the classes she taught to boys on the Spectrum.  Unfortunately, she left behind no records of her classes before she was killed in an Allied bombing attack on the hospital ward where she worked.

The connection between drama and social skills teaching for aspies makes a lot of intuitive sense.  Take plays.  Plays have routine and structure.  Plays offer a venue where Aspies can safely and impersonally practice interactions with other people.

Then there’s improvisation. Improvisation uses a predictable and supportive system in which Aspies can practice the art – and skill — of observing others and working with others as part of a team.  Improvisation uses a step-by-step, rule-following process designed to help reduce anxiety.  The founder of improvisation, Viola Spolin used a “what if” approach in her acting classes. What if you were talking to your grandmother? What if you were talking to a child?  The goal of her improvisation classes were to get the actor away from thinking about himself or herself and put them in touch with the situation.  BINGO!

Not to mention, performing scenes, working backstage and doing improvisation skits is fun. These activities might catch the attention of even reluctant participant/players.

Drama therapy is a 33-year-old clinical profession which successfully uses principles of theatre in a variety of therapy contexts.  It is more recently being used in social skills programming with people on the Spectrum.   For example, the Spotlight Program, developed by the Northeast Arc in Massachusetts uses drama to teach social pragmatics to youth ages 6 to 22. Shenanigans is an improvisation-based program for youth with Autism founded by the grandmother of a young man on the Spectrum in Georgia.

Many participants in these ASD-centered drama programs report positive results. Actors in The Spotlight Program say, “I’ve gained friendships and learned new games, how to be more mature and how to interact with others” (North Shore ARC, 2008, p. 1). Another says, “I’ve learned to recognize myself in others” (North Shore ARC, 2008, p. 2).

A news report about Shenanigans describes the experience of a mother whose son participated in their program: “Acceptance eluded 14-year-old Sammy, until Shenanigans. Sammy’s mom Christina Seidel said ‘He’s had a real rough many years of not fitting in. It’s given him self esteem, more confidence and he’s just happier.’” http://www.11alive.com/news/article/239881/40/Improv-helps-autistic-Atlantans-take-center-stage

The research on using Drama Therapy programs to teach social skills is fairly new but highly promising.  As with all teaching and therapy methods, it will take a lot of trial and error (and improvisation) to develop a solid body of scientific evidence about the positive effects of Drama Therapy.  But, plain and simple — drama-based teaching offers all the basic elements needed to effectively teach social and pragmatic skills to ASD learners.  Here’s to support for continued growth these promising programs!

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