A set of subtle and complicated social skills is embedded into the entire school experience, from the lunchroom to the classroom. While most children naturally learn how to take turns talking with their friends and stay on topic during classroom discussions, these skills do not come easily to kids on the autism spectrum. Social and communication deficits are one of the hallmarks of this condition (McKenna).
Some schools, nonprofit organizations, private speech therapists, and parents provide direct instruction on social interaction using Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum or create a “lunch-bunch” social group in the cafeteria. Another strategy is teaching those skills through the arts (McKenna).
“When you talk with a person with autism about something that is interesting to them, they can do it,” Corbett said, explaining that kids with autism have difficulty with flexible and reciprocal conversations. “Their challenge is when you switch topics.” They also have trouble recognizing faces and managing stress. All these problems can undermine their relationships with teachers, friends, and family, and, later, their ability to land a job. Corbett’s camp is aimed at helping autistic children improve in these areas (McKenna).
In a recent study, she compared kids in her program with those in a control group and found that participants in the drama class were better able to recognize faces, understand different perspectives, and regulate anxiety (McKenna).
The improved face memory may be explained in part because the students are directly engaging with peers. Because gathering social information is an integral part of acting, they are forced to focus on those cues and stimuli (McKenna).
According to Villa-Bager, drama classes are a particularly effective method to teach social skills because they force autistic kids to face another person and respond to others’ feelings in a fun and exciting way. Using role-playing exercises, the class—which is led by trained dramatic-arts therapists and often utilizes peer models—provides kids with a safe place to figure out the right responses to tricky situations that may have happened at school (McKenna).
In addition to improving social skills, Sheehy said that programs like hers provide a place for marginalized and excluded kids—including children with all forms of disabilities—to shine and to make friends in the community. “Kaitlin always felt like she was in the audience,” she said. “She was always looking at everyone else. Now she wants to be on Broadway. She loves being part of something.” One of their students, a non-verbal boy in a wheelchair with a degenerative neurological disability, was able to participate in a play by feeding his lines into his adaptive-speaking device. His mom said that practicing for the play was the best part of his week (McKenna).
As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If kids with high-functioning autism take his words to heart, maybe they’ll be able to better navigate the tricky rules of social interactions that structure schools and life (McKenna).