Autism on Stage

Dramatic Arts Programs for Kids with ASDs Are Sweeping the Nation


he autism community has witnessed an extraordinary surge in theater arts programs for kids with spectrum conditions. Afterschool workshops, summer camps, and thespian clubs have sprung up in numbers across the country, ranging from Cindy Scheider’s Acting Antics, which boasts an extensive list of workshops housed in a hip, converted barn-studio in Glenmore, Pennsylvania, to Elaine Hall’s Los Angelesbased Miracle Project. Hall’s work put autistic children and their gifts for music and performance on the map as the subject of the Emmy-award winning HBO documentary Autism: The Musical. Educators and therapists are abuzz with the parallels theater-based programs have— and in some instances even vie with— in relation to traditional comprehensive special education programs. All you have to do is translate ed speak into stage speak to begin to see the uncanny resemblances. Physical therapy? That’s movement class. Speech therapy? Voice and diction. Scene study? Get ready for this: your good, oldfashioned social skills group! And the best part of all, theater-based programming is less likely to expose its participants to one of the shortcomings of our educational and service provision systems: professional jargon and the resulting objectification of individuals with disabilities, which all too often permeates the environments they live and learn in. The past several years have also witnessed growth in research on the benefits of the dramatic arts for children with disabilities, providing us with insight into how they have been used to support emotional and behavioral challenges (Widdows, 1996; Jackson & Bynum, 1997), provide successful settings for peer integration and inclusion (Bayliss & Dodwell, 2004), increase

Valerie Paradiz, PhD, is a member of the editorial board of The Autism File and a board member of the Autism Society of America. She develops educational programmes for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), including the Integrated Self Advocacy (ISA)® curriculum and training series for educators and therapists who wish to support individuals with ASDs in achieving greater ability in self-advocacy. For more information or to contact Valerie, visit

Elizabeth Nickrenz and Genevieve Cassagrande with Adelaide, storytelling

Genevieve Cassagrande and Valerie Paradiz with after school students, developing characters

Elizabeth Nickrenz with Adelaide and Max (Danielle Ferrante in background)

Danielle Ferrante is employed by LearningSpring School, a program designed for students diagnosed on the autism spectrum. She has worked for this population for over ten years while writing and implementing the Social Skills and Behavior Management Curriculums used schoolwide. Danielle is currently pursuing a masters in Mental Health Counseling and looks forward to continuing to learn and grow alongside her students. | THE AUTISM FILE 113

Valerie Paradiz, Elizabeth Nickrenz and after school students, listening to a workshop on improvisation

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independence (Price & Barron, 1999), and encourage greater self-awareness (Wright, 2006). This trend of emerging theater programs has become so infectious, that in October 2007, Andrew Nelson, a passionate proponent and developer of dramatic arts programming at the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, co-founded the Applied Theatre Research and Autism Network (ARTRAN). ARTRAN’s reach is global and has already connected practitioners with individuals on the spectrum and their families in India, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Syria, Canada, and the United States. “Theater is the perfect forum for having fun,” says Nelson, “for playing and discovering in a structured way.” Add to this his beliefs that “theater artists are usually open-minded” and the “theater itself is generally an environment of comfort and acceptance,” and you’ve crossed two important hurdles in creating a successful program in autism education. Like the members of ARTRAN, the authors of this article have also been hard at work developing theater arts programs for kids with ASDs. It all began in 2003, when I (Valerie Paradiz, author and educational consultant) initiated the School for Autistic Strength Purpose and Independence in Education (ASPIE), a full-day school program for middle and high school students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and related conditions in the Onteora Central School District, which is near my home in historic Woodstock, New York. I had been a writer and educator for nearly 15 years, teaching creative writing, literature, and foreign language at the postsecondary level at Bard College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York. In 2002, I published a memoir titled Elijah’s Cup (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) that told the story of life with my son, Elijah Wapner, and our involvement in the emerging self-advocacy community among people with autism. But when Elijah, who was classified autistic at age three, had a crisis in his final year of elementary school, I began devoting myself to education and advocacy for students and adults on the spectrum, including such projects as the ASPIE School. Like my son, I am also an individual diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. I

was evaluated only five years ago, so my awareness of my spectrum status didn’t happen until well into my adult life. As I directed the ASPIE School and trained teachers and therapists in the fundamental educational philosophy that students on the spectrum should have safe, open forums for understanding and exploring their strengths and challenges, Elijah attended classes there. The school offered the New York State Regents curriculum, as well as original curricula and therapeutic supports specific to the needs of kids with ASDs. At that time, I developed and taught a class in self-advocacy, which I have since refined into a comprehensive training series with curricular materials for teachers, therapists and students (Integrated Self Advocacy®). Another unique programmatic element was ASPIE’s alternative physical education program. I was weary of the adaptive PE classes I had seen Elijah trudge through over the years. Such programs seemed to promote the idea that fun and imagination aren’t components of physical activity. That’s when Howard Moody (right) arrived on the scene. There couldn’t have been a better match for my ideal of a PE teacher for ASD kids. The minute Howard walked into a room, kids just wanted to jump on him and horse around. He’s one of those people who have a naturally playful aura. Howard was the co-originator of the Adventure Game Theater, an innovative, drama-based program that emphasizes noncompetitive group play, social relatedness, and character development through improvisational technique. His work spans 25 impressive years developing programs for schools, corporations and non-profit organizations. When I met him in 2003, his Adventure Game Theater was thrilling parents and capturing the imaginations of neurotypical kids across the Northeast region of the United States. “It’s hard to get people to play,” Howard says, “because kids and adults have been so turned off by team games, especially by the time they get to high school.” Parents and professionals see this problem quite often in kids on the

autism spectrum, but for additional reasons. Students might lack the motor coordination, processing speed, and upper body strength to fully enter into traditional team games, leaving them feeling inadequate, left out, or disinterested in physical activity. And yet, Howard points out, “students with ASDs still have such playful curiosity.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and his skill at motivating others through safe, inclusive games and role-play is stunning to witness. Together, Howard and I worked at adapting his Adventure Game model, bringing it to kids attending the ASPIE School. He began by leading weekly workshops in PE class, guiding students through the basics of improv and imaginative play. He moved on to simple lessons in understanding the fundamentals of battling with safe, foam swords and casting spells with magic wands. Throughout each workshop, objectives in social thinking and reading nonverbal cues were embedded to make learning such skills fun and concrete. With time, students were creating their own fictional personas and learned how to embody characters in costume. They often modeled their characters on heroes and villains in their favorite video games, fantasy novels, or Yugio cards. The workshops built upon themselves to the culminating Adventure Game, a quest story enacted by the students, replete with giants, monsters, wizards, kings, and queens played by some of Howard’s former students, who had founded a non-profit arts education organization called Wayfinder/ Adventure Game, Inc. His young protégés also assisted in developing the narrative itself, an original, theatrical sketch, written specifically for the kids participating in the program. The ASPIE students came alive, taking on fantastic roles in the quest story that unfolded before them. The remarkable thing about this kind of theater is that it appeals to autistic kids’ sensibilities, particularly those who enjoy fantasy and video gaming. Young adolescents who never had the pleasure of letting go and hamming it up suddenly felt they could do so. They seemed to lose their self-consciousness, becoming evil ogres and fairies, taking risks socially through their characters to discover newfound confidence. Most of all, their sense of joy and community spilled over into the everyday.
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After three years of cutting-edge programming, the ASPIE School sadly lost funding and had to close its doors. This led me to co-found the Open Center for Autism with Sarah Borris, who had worked closely with me as Manager of Programs at the ASPIE School. The Open Center carried on the tradition of theater arts programming for kids with ASDs, collaborating with Howard Moody and Wayfinder/Adventure Game, Inc., and offering summer camps and workshops in Kingston, New York. When I was called away to consult at schools in New York City, Sarah Borris took the helm of the Open Center, directing the organization as well as overseeing its activities and offerings. “The center touched two communities,” says Sarah, “the ASD community and the Wayfinder community. It also filled a void. There was nothing for kids on the spectrum to do in the summer.” Under her direction, Sarah was able to expand the reach of the theater camps to four surrounding counties and attract families from as far away as Long Island and New York City. Like Andrew Nelson of ARTRAN, who says it’s important to “substantiate the field” of theater-based education through research, I wanted the exciting, collaborative programming that was happening in our upstate New York community to be documented and validated. That’s when I introduced Elizabeth Nickrenz, a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Comparative Human Development, to the staff of the Open Center programs. Elizabeth’s background is in anthropology and clinical psychology, making her observations on this niche of autism education particularly unique. “What makes the work so fascinating for me,” she says, “is the intersection of best practices for ASDs with improvisational theater, particularly the way the norms, values, practices, and techniques of special ed and autism experts intersect with improvisation actors and master storytellers.” Elizabeth began observing the Open Center camp programs for her dissertation research, noting in her data collection “how these two sets of approaches complement each other, and, in the moments when they come into conflict, how they problem
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solve, how the collaboration can lead to new insights.” The result is genuine interdisciplinary programming, or, as she puts it, “each says things that the other can’t say.” Elizabeth also notes how the camps expose kids on the spectrum to “the possibilities for role-playing,” while providing a space to practice “a wide variety of repertoires for being in different kinds of environments.” By the spring of 2008, I felt enough had been developed and proven in our own community to take the collaboration to new regions. During the ASPIE School years, I had developed ties with Margaret Poggi, director of Learning Spring, an elementary school for students classified with Asperger’s syndrome, high functioning autism, PDD, and related conditions, located in New York City. Learning Spring had begun in Manhattan as a classroom pilot within a pre-existing agency, YAI/ NYL. As the program solidified, filling a gaping need for kids with ASDs in the New York metropolitan region, dedicated families decided that it needed to continue. These founding parents pulled together all of their resources, making it possible for Learning Spring Elementary School to open its doors in 2001. The fledgling school occupied one tiny floor of a building, with only three classrooms, a handful of young teachers, and 24 students. Today, Learning Spring stands strong with the backing of its board, enrolling 56 students and employing approximately 40 staff members. Plans to expand into the middle school grades in a newly designed building are slated for 2009. Since its inception, Learning Spring School has established a strong educational philosophy that emphasizes an integrated curriculum designed to challenge students individually at their own performance levels. Using a cooperative learning paradigm, the needs of the whole child are addressed by combining academics with the equally important mastery of social-emotional, pragmatic language, organizational, and sensory-motor skills. The school celebrates students’ strengths, using positive language and behavior management skills to capitalize on abilities. When I approached Learning Spring School in 2008 with a proposal for an afterschool pilot, the timing was right.

Danielle Ferrante, director of social skills programming, explains: School staff felt that drama and roleplaying activities might provide opportunities for their students to think more freely. Flexibility and imagination are often challenging concepts for children on the spectrum. My colleagues and I were interested in finding out whether, through the medium of drama and the programs Valerie Paradiz had developed with her colleagues, kids could arrive at new levels of social competence. Five students participated in our six-week pilot. I observed each weekly session along with rotating staff from the Learning Spring School. The afterschool staff included the usual suspects that Valerie had collaborated with in previous years, including Howard Moody as a consultant on programmatic questions and Elizabeth Nickrenz, who designed a research project to track student participation based on interviews with parents and school personnel. Members of Wayfinder/ Adventure Game, Inc. staffed the weekly workshops and, together with Elizabeth and Valerie, wrote a curriculum that combined the core concepts of the Adventure Game with therapeutic approaches and strategies specific to the needs of kids with ASDs. Genevieve Cassagrande, one of the founders of Wayfinder/Adventure Game, Inc., led each week’s workshop. A recent graduate of theater education at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, she had also been one of Howard’s first campers. Genevieve’s gift for conveying how imagination can be fun was welcoming and appealing. The first day she walked into the room, our students were rapt and immediately willing to participate. If only you could bottle Genevieve’s energy and enthusiasm! In addition to her spunk, her gift in communicating with kids on the spectrum in a concrete, structured manner captured both their hearts and attention. The pilot began in March and ended in June, just before the end of the school year. Students met each Tuesday after school from 2:30–5:00 pm for what might seem like a long afternoon following a full day of academics at school. Yet the families, in their interviews with Elizabeth Nickrenz, spoke of their children’s eager anticipation of Tuesdays and the activities that awaited them in the afterschool program. As Genevieve and the Wayfinder/Adventure Game, Inc. staff moved through each week’s workshop, they followed | THE AUTISM FILE 115

the basic structure Howard Moody had initiated at the ASPIE School and that had been refined at the Open Center. In addition to theater-based lessons on imaginative play, improvisation, character development, sword fighting, and using magic, activities were geared to encourage eye contact (referencing), social interaction, turn-taking, problem solving, coordination, and teamwork. Meanwhile, the students seemed unaware that a skill was being taught, because it had been introduced in a manner that did not make them self-conscious. They genuinely enjoyed the experience. As students learned these skills in the afterschool sessions, I was able to follow through on some of the social discoveries they had made, such as identifying common interests they shared with peers. During the school day, in social skills class, I tapped into these discoveries, using them to build and strengthen relationships. The afterschool staff also used teaching techniques to foster an environment of confidence, offering a delicate combination of direct teaching and personal relatedness to engage students in a loosely structured environment. “I know you are hungry for snack,” Genevieve would say to a student who was fatigued or wished to leave an activity. “Right now, it is time to play. C’mon, I’ll try it with you!” This type of modeling, coupled with an energetic, “can do” attitude, made the students feel comfortable about trying new things. Use of visual supports was another key strategy, including social stories, written or displayed schedules, visual timers, photos, journaling, and videotaping. “This is what we are doing now,” a staff member would say in a matter-of-fact tone, referring to the schedule posted on the wall without a hint of judgment. “Snack will be after the next game.” To help reduce anxiety for some students, timing cues would be given, such as, “We will finish this activity when the timer goes off.” As we approached the grand finale of the afterschool pilot, the Adventure Game, which took place on a Sunday in New York’s Central Park, I dovetailed on the afterschool workshops, offering students social stories during school hours to explain the “rules” for the final event of the pilot. The stories assisted students in feeling prepared for the day’s itinerary without leaving questions open or unanswered. Such details as times to meet, the staff and people attending the Adventure Game, activities that students would do, and

the time events were to start and end were features of the social story. These supports helped ease their anxiety. Learning Spring School also uses photos and video as common teaching tools in classrooms and therapeutic settings, which I turned to as a means of integrating afterschool experiences with students’ day-to-day routines. Because they are faced with so many negative experiences in their lives, it’s sometimes hard for kids on the spectrum to maintain perspective and remember the good experiences, as well. In this way, I showed them photos and video clips to reinforce the positive moments and experiences they had had, causing them to redirect their focus away from the negative to achieve enhanced self-regulation. Each week, the students looked forward to their workshops in the dramatic arts and were even overheard bragging to classmates about the program and how much fun it was. By the end of the six-week pilot, Learning Spring staff reported that the kids were more willing to try new things. In general, they seemed to be more relaxed and were able to be silly and let themselves go, with fewer signs of anxiety. Additionally, they seemed to have become more creative in their input in school and showed greater flexibility in thinking by viewing things more in the gray area rather than the usual black and white. Other benefits included the bonds that participating students formed and their relationships carrying over into the school day. Remarkably, fellow classmates who had not taken part in the theater arts pilot seemed to respond to the enthusiasm of their peers, who would rally and encourage them to try new things, sharing some of the strategies they had learned after school. The afterschool pilot made a significant contribution to the Learning Spring community, which has since initiated theater arts-based programming and strategies both in its general curriculum and in its growing afterschool program. In an academic setting, it is difficult to employ this type of approach to teach social skills. Theater-based experiences, however, provide a rich arena for introducing -- and more importantly --practicing, these necessary skills. As researcher Elizabeth Nickrenz comments, “learning to improvise and act in a fantastic, unfamiliar world makes sense [for individuals with ASDs] as a means of learning and practicing social roles in a deliberate way.”

Genevieve Cassagrande and Jane, character interviews

Theater arts programming is swiftly becoming a new addition to the promising educational methodologies that have emerged in the past decade for students with autism spectrum conditions. Still more new programs and events are in development across the country and ready to launch. In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, look for the Autism Society of Minnesota’s (AuSM) recently formed partnership with Upstream Arts, a non-profit agency that seeks to enhance the lives of adults and youth with disabilities by fostering creative communication and social independence through the power of arts education. Programs will begin for kids aged 8-16 in January 2009. Also in January, keep an eye out for the release of Keri Bowers’ latest film, ARTS. Bowers, a disability advocate and filmmaker, has produced her third documentary (following the acclaimed productions Normal People Scare Me and The Sandwich Kid), this time delving into the drama, writing, painting, dance, and music of individuals with disabilities. If you don’t have access to a program in your community and would like to explore one, consider attending the Autism Society of America’s Annual Conference in St. Charles, Illinois, in July 2009 where ARTRAN and Valerie Paradiz will be hosting a symposium on theater arts and ASDs. In addition to the pre-conference symposium, ARTRAN will provide workshops for kids on the spectrum through the conference’s childcare program, culminating in a theatrical performance on-site in the hotel’s theater. Resources and Contact Information:
Valerie Paradiz, PhD: Learning Spring School: Howard Moody: ARTRAN:
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