The terms “special needs” and “challenges” are often synonymous with one another. In fact, challenges are a part of life, whether experienced neurotypically or with special needs. However true this may be, the people at 4th Wall understand that when a person is on the autism spectrum, those challenges often create barriers to social involvement, sense of self worth, and the quality of life experience.
The benefits of theatre involvement for the autism community are apparent to the instructors of 4th Wall Theatre Co., where their slogan is “Theatre for ALL Abilities!” In fact, the benefits become real for parents, caregivers, and audiences as they watch the progress made by their loved ones against the “odds” that autism has seemingly set for them. Here are three top ways theatre levels the playing field for every child:
Theatre for the Win: The Benefit to Social Skills
“For those with special needs, increasing one’s comfort level is where theatre therapy provides opportunities to stretch and grow; not only in speaking within larger groups, but expanding life enhancing skill sets as well.”
— Katie Mann, 4th Wall Theatre Co. Co-founder
Throughout theatre history, the stage has been a place for people to communicate in different ways: from monologues and singing, to interpretive movement and rhythmic dance. The arts have set the scene for people to learn about the world and themselves. The three parts of musical theatre—acting, singing, and dancing—can be a very important tool in the continued development of a person who experiences the world through the lens of autism.
There are many social skills that theatre continually develops, from the first acting game to the final performance: learning how to make and keep eye contact, taking turns in speech (dialogue), and making friends, etc.
Eye contact is a natural result, albeit gradual for many with autism, of sharing a scene with another person and communicating a shared experience. This skill is also encouraged by learning the stage’s rules of placement next to others, as well as the acknowledgement of the difference between those on stage and those watching from the audience.
Among the many wonderful benefits of theatre (and I’m only slightly biased) is that it serves as fun “practice” for much of what can challenge those on the spectrum, including holding a conversation with another person. Through enjoyable, nonthreatening games and structured exercises with the words provided, conversation is encouraged as a goal set by theatre.
Theatre as an art form is just generally a fertile ground for friendship. The act of joining others in being brave and respectful of others onstage naturally leads to sharing a kinship with them that is hard to shake off for all who try it.
Theatre for the Win!: Benefit of Empowerment
“Learned helplessness is the opposite of empowerment. Here a child has learned to ask/require help for most tasks. This is often accidentally taught by those who are well-meaning, but can be avoided by allowing youth to take prideful ownership of their independent actions.”
— Katie Mann, M.Ed, Special Education
Finding the motivation to take on life and experience what it has to offer presents a constant struggle for many on the autism spectrum. For loved ones, each therapy or activity brings another hope that the outcome will be meaningful and attainable for the child/client. Theatre, especially when adapted for those with autism, offers:
1) the structure of a supportive environment,
2) instructional strategies that support positive outcomes, and
3) self-affirming “rewards” for individual effort (accepted and applauded for uniqueness: not required to meet a “standard”).
Theatre involvement battles the confines of learned helplessness by focusing on creating positive outcomes from social and physical interaction (applause is a huge motivator). Through the process of singing, dancing, and acting along with others, each participant is allowed to take ownership of his/her actions. Those actions come to ultimate fruition when the parts of the theatre, and all those participating onstage, come together for what they have been working towards: the performance! The connection between the actors’ own independent actions and the resulting positive outcome is powerful.
Theatre for the Win!: Benefits to Quality of Life
“This is what 4th Wall was founded upon: the idea that the magic of the theatre is something that should be shared with everyone, regardless of their different abilities…The true transformative magic of the theatre lies in self-discovery, in finding oneself and becoming comfortable in sharing with others what you’ve found.”
—Annie Klark, 4th Wall Theatre Co. Co-Founder
Amidst the flurry of therapies, doctor visits, and education concerns, the focus on enjoying life can get lost. While there are many aspects that contribute to quality-of-life, an undeniable truth of living your best life is to experience that which brings you joy. Theatre allows individuals to learn about themselves. For children with autism, discovering how to be true to who they are and what makes them unique can lead to smiles that do not easily fade!
We have three “rules of the theatre” at 4th Wall:
- Be Safe!
Be careful of how your actions could hurt you or those around you. Helping someone to understand that he/she has ownership of their actions and that those actions can affect the well-being of several people is impactful for those on the autism spectrum.
- Be Brave!
Be willing to try new things, even if you are nervous. Theatre therapy instructors are skilled in providing support and encouragement to “be brave” for students who think they won’t be able to do an activity. When it comes down to it, however, it is watching the other students try it and have a good time while doing it that most often encourages this “rule.”
- Always Be Respectful!
Be mindful that your words and actions can be harmful to the way others feel about themselves. Just as with “be safe,” allowing individuals to take ownership of what they do or say, and how it may affect others, provides an opportunity for growth. In the theatre, this “rule” often leads to friendship and increased enjoyment of the activity.
Each “rule” describes another way to have fun and to try new things in the structure of a “safe space.” In fact, the benefits of theater involvement for those on the autism spectrum are all ultimately about this: fun (with some amazing cherries on top)!
Let’s look at a true 4th Wall story from one of our workshops:
Brian’s mother had signed him up for a workshop hoping that he would enjoy it, but when she dropped him off, Brian refused to enter the room. After an instructor came out and spoke with him, a deal was made. Brian would join and watch (from a chair in the corner, he was adamant), and as the class progressed, the instructor would see if he wanted to join in—but if he didn’t want to, that was his choice and it was OK. So Brian took a seat in the corner and didn’t say a word or make a move that first class, but when he returned the following week, he moved his chair closer to the circle of his fellow students. When the group began a game of “Pass the Hat,” he accepted the police hat from another student who had just shouted the line “Don’t move!” Putting it on, Brian whispered, “freeze.” He continued to make progress, as he found more enjoyment from activities where he was encouraged to do it his way. His smile grew week by week, and his laughter got louder every time a new friend joined in. When his mother dropped him off before the final performance, she shared, “He has been shouting his lines rehearsing with me all week getting ready to perform with his friends today! He is so excited.”
People of all abilities—adults, youth, kids—are often stopped from trying new things by their hang-ups, fears, or things they can’t control. For those on the autism spectrum, theatre presents a welcoming stage where what is unique about us is applauded and independent choice is encouraged. With the added benefits of improving social skills, self-worth, and quality-of-life, theatre therapy offers a safe space to have experiences that “challenges” or “special needs” have no say in!
Robin Bennett is the author of Broken Bird, blogger, and instructor for 4th Wall Theatre. She is also a proud wheelchair user and legal advocate for those with disabilities, often seen in Lansing’s capitol building driving her cause.
In theatre, “the 4th wall” refers to the invisible “wall” separating the actors onstage and the audience watching the action. 4th Wall Theatre Company, founded by Katie Mann and Annie Klark and headquartered in Livonia, MI, derives its name from our mission to use theatre as a form of therapy to help improve communication, socialization, and behavioral skills. 4th Wall aims to break down the barriers to theatre arts for children and young adults with special needs.
This article was featured in Issue 55 – Celebrating with the People We Love