(NewsNation) — In a small church northwest of Atlanta, art therapist Jason Evans with the nonprofit group Autism Improvised conducted a unique exercise with a group of boys on the autism spectrum.
Instead of sitting still and engaging in traditional talk therapy with a therapist, the group of middle and high schoolers were instead on their feet, acting out improvised scenes.
At one moment, the group played a game called “Whatchu’ Doin?” where a participant pantomimes an action while another would ask them what they were doing. The first would then name something else entirely; the second would have to start pantomiming whatever was said. They weren’t allowed to use any words; the only way to express themselves was with exaggerated physicality.
One by one, the boys gave each other tasks like cooking pasta or playing musical instruments.
Some people on the spectrum may get stuck on an idea or topic. The goal of the exercise was to have the participants practice changing their focus to all sorts of different activities.
“We have to learn to work on different subjects and be interested in that subject,” Evans said.
Evans is the Lead Program Director at Autism Improvised, which has been operating out of Georgia for more than a decade. The founder, Sandy Bruce, has a grandchild who is on the spectrum and wanted to do something to help people who have autism. The organization holds improv classes for both kids and adults and reaches about 30-40 participants per semester.
Blythe Corbett, Director of the Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology Lab at Vanderbilt University, has spent years running a theater-based intervention for people on the spectrum. She explained how playing a character can encourage perspective-taking.
“A lot of [people on the spectrum], they think very concretely and from their own point of view. And so in order to really engage in a social world, we need to recognize that other people may have thoughts and feelings that are very different than us. And so it’s a critical social skill,” she said.
Being autistic can vary widely as far as abilities, intelligence and challenges.
Research on her program, which provides scripts to participants and culminates in the performance of a play, has shown that it helps improve children’s communication skills. Corbett did caution that it’s important to have individuals on hand who have experience working with autism when administering theater-based interventions.
Unlike the Vanderbilt program, improv comedy requires participants to think on their feet. There are no scripts, and improv scenes often require participants to act something out based on what an audience member suggests. One of the famous mottos of improv is “don’t think.”
“We’ve found repeatedly that improv … helps our autistic youth feel more confident around communication and social skills, making friends, employment-related skills, those kinds of things,” said Jim Ansaldo, a Research Scholar at the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University Bloomington.
The center runs Camp Yes And, an improv summer camp that provides education both for youth on the spectrum and teachers who work with them.
“It increases educators’ and others professionals’ confidence in their ability to support autistic youth in the classroom and in other settings,” Ansaldo said.
Back in Georgia, in another activity done with the Autism Improvised group, Evans laid down a cloth divider to separate the stage into two parts. On each side, actors had to act out a scenario suggested by an audience member with a particular emotion also chosen by the audience. But as actors moved around on stage, they’d also have to change their emotions when they crossed the divider.
During this section, the boys played characters like a pair of mafia bosses that had to switch between being proud and being constipated.
Evans said the point of this exercise was to practice being aware of emotions.
“I know my own emotions, but sometimes I don’t care to watch other emotions,” he said of the lesson he was imparting. “Those emotions are critical. I really do have to focus on what those emotions are.”
For Ansaldo, improv ultimately serves as a tool of communication that can benefit everyone, whether they’re on the spectrum or not. He pointed to Viola Spolin, the 20th-century educator who is considered one of the founders of modern improv.
“She created a lot of the improv games that we’re playing today because she was trying to figure out how to create theater with a group of immigrants who came from different countries and spoke different languages and had different cultures,” he said. “And so improv has always been a tool for that sort of connection across difference.”