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‘Theater Changed My Life!’ Says ASD Adult

June 4, 2021

Do you find yourself seeking out that one pivotal therapy that will enrich and engage your child? I found mine at age six, and I’d like to share it with you now since it changed my life.

‘Theater Changed My Life!’ Says ASD Adult

I was diagnosed as a toddler, initially with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which was later specified as asperger’s disorder, and later with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Since preschool, a noted feature was my constant repetition of phrases and excerpts I remembered from television shows and movies. This mimicking behavior became annoying and distracting in classroom settings. My first-grade teacher suggested I get involved in theater as a way to express those voices in a positive manner. It was the director of a theater camp for typical children who propelled me to new possibilities, especially as I discovered hidden talents and potential.

Unintentionally, theater started out as a form of therapy. It was not until I reached my adolescence that I became aware of its impact in every facet of my life; I just thought it was a good way to meet people and have fun. I later learned my parents were initially concerned about how I would react to the heightened sensory stimulation involved in theater: the bright lights, the costumes stitched with rough fabric or containing tags, and the need to be quiet in a dark area when not onstage. To their pleasant surprise, and thanks to the guidance of an experienced teenage actor/companion, I was able to cope in that type of setting while discovering my fulfillment. The elation of contributing to the production and connecting to the audience kept me coming back for more. From that point on, theater changed from hobby to lifestyle.

That one summer bloomed into 19 years of theatrical participation, which fostered personal growth, social awareness, and meaningful friendships. The greatest contribution musical theater has given my life is a sense of belonging: for every new production or theater experience I get involved with, I find myself in an environment where everyone’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks are embraced. Humanity is truly at the forefront. Through every new show, I grow from the messages within scripts, the lyrics of impactful songs, and even the choreography and teamwork of big dance numbers. Theater has strengthened my empathy, sympathy, and compassion towards others, as well as my desire to listen to other people’s stories. Obviously, this was in addition to other forms of traditional social skill therapies. What was once considered a short-coming for me is now my greatest strength!

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On a practical level, here are the various ways theater enhanced my social skills and abilities:

  • Social and communication skills
    • Helped me look people in the eye
    • Helped me learn nonverbal communication
      • Exaggerated voice tones and facial expressions of actors helped me notice clues that had eluded me in the past
      • Performance also helped me express emotions and learn to use body language
    • Helped me learn when it was appropriate to be quiet
    • Taught me how to wait my turn
    • Advanced my conversation skills
      • Scripts demonstrate reciprocal conversations
      • Helped advance my social skills and progress with unanticipated, spontaneous social situations—e.g., cast parties
      • Taught me the proper ways to converse with authority figures—e.g., director, stage manager
  • Taught me how to take directions and be open to acting in a different way
  • Helped me to understand others’ perspectives
  • Helped me develop tolerance and appreciation for the differences of others
  • Helped me develop a “thick skin”
    • Learned to handle rejection, accept critique, and become receptive to coaching
  • Improved my sensory and motor skills
    • Increased my tolerance of bright lights, costumes, make-up, people in close proximity, and noise (as long as I had a warning)
    • Practice with choreography improved my coordination and helped me embrace how I carried myself
  • Rehearsals were stress relievers; especially with the increasing demands of life as I aged
    • Helped me stay organized and on top of my schoolwork to enable time to attend
  • Brought me joy!
  • Enabled friendship and belonging, as well as a social niche
    • Not all was perfect: there were a couple bullies in one of the childhood camps
      • Helped me work on problem-solving and coping with the realities of life
  • Helped me realize and appreciate my talents and strengths
  • Helped with my asperger’s trait of wanting things done “the right way”
    • There is no such thing as the overall perfect production
      • Mistakes and flukes are inevitable
      • It is still bothersome when people don’t know their lines…but I’ve accepted people work in their own way
        • I have learned to focus on myself and let others get their “acts” together
      • The magic of theater: no matter how crazy, the production always comes together in the end (this applies to life!)

I was able to transfer all these skills to my non-theater life. I strongly encourage readers, especially parents and educators, to get your child(ren) involved in theater. More research is being done regarding the therapeutic benefits of theater for children with autism, and I can personally attest to the tremendous outcomes that can come from such a venture. Benefits are not solely found in acting; through stage crew, costume design, or lighting, important life lessons and skills can also be learned. Confidence, meaningful friendships, and a sense of purpose are just some of the tremendous life-long benefits your child(ren) could attain. You can learn more about how theater has impacted my life through my book and website. Whether or not you have dreams of stardom, theater can help you attain the skills to soar.

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