Notes on Theatre Therapy for Children With Autism by Courtney Wheater (Emmett)

There has not been a lot of research conducted on this subject so when reviewing the literature, the topic must be considered from the perspectives of Autism, theatre, theatre-therapy, and theatre-therapy for children with Autism. The literature that has been reviewed has all supported the idea that theatre could be used to help children with Autism develop their social and emotional skills (Wheater 2).

Theatre, meanwhile, has been used since the times of the ancient Greeks in order to help people achieve catharsis, or a state of emotional purification. Theatre allows people to explore emotions in a safe place because the emotions being experienced do not belong to the audience or even to the actors. Theatre is a creative and abstract way to bring people across different walks of life together in a shared experience and to allow them to interact and relate to one another (Wheater 3).

Theatre has been used as a form of therapy for people with mental illnesses for decades. Within the past decade, however, it has started to be considered as therapy for children with autism. This use of theatre could greatly impact the social and emotional development of children with autism as well as revolutionize theatre therapy and autism therapy models (Wheater 3).

The question to be considered is whether theatre can be used as an effective therapy for children with autism. Theatre has been used for therapy with patients with mental illnesses and has always been considered as an excellent source for social and emotional development, since the times of the Ancient Greeks. As children with autism struggle with social and emotional skills, it makes sense to question if theatre therapy would benefit these children, as well (Wheater 7).

Autism Spectrum Disorders are listed in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and will be revised in the DSM-V, to be released in May 2013 (American Psychiatric Association, 2012). The DSM currently lists five disorders under the title of ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorders.’ These disorders include Autistic Disorder, Asperger Disorder/Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rett Syndrome (Wheater 7-8).

The DSM IV (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) defines Autistic Disorder (299.00) as having at least six of the following traits,

(1) Qualitative impairment in social interaction… [such as] (a) Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures… (b) Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level, (c) A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people… (d) Lack of social or emotional reciprocity. (2) Qualitative impairments in communication… [such as] (a) Delay in, or total lack of the development of spoken language… (b)… impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others, (c) Stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language, (d) Lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level. (3) Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities… [such as] (a)…preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus, (b)…inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals, (c) Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms…(d) Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects. [Individuals with autism also have] delays or abnormal functioning in…with onset prior to age 3 years: (1) social interaction, (2) language as used in social communication, or (3) symbolic or imaginative play. (Wheater 8-9).

Theatre can be used as a tool to help people learn and develop cognitive skills. The way that people interact with the script; through reading the text, being audience to the show, or enacting the roles, changes the meaning of the text (Jensen, 2008). The script, both in its written and expressed forms, can be interpreted in a number of ways. Those who participate in theatrical experiences, in any number of ways, are given the opportunity to consider and interpret the text in the way that makes most sense to them, as an individual and as a collective group (Wheater 15).

Theatre, in the educational setting, provides students with a great deal of experiential learning; the students can experience a text from the standpoint of an audience member as well as an actor, as a part of the show. Theatre also allows students experience with problem solving and a creative outlet (Jensen, 2008) while the students are exploring issues of the past, dealing with the conflict within the play, and issues with staging and other practical issues, while putting the show together (Wheater 15).

Plays and other theatrical works revolve around social interactions and often these exchanges are dysfunctional in some way. These experiences allow children, including children with autism, to observe an interaction from the outside and determine if said interaction is functional or not and how it may be improved upon; this would be a valuable experience, especially for children that struggle with these interactions on their own (Wheater 16).

Theatre also allows people the opportunity to break out of their typical social roles and engage in behaviors that they would not be able to in their normal daily lives (Lancaster, 1997). Through theatrical experiences, a person can be anybody and have any experience, which allows for an increase in compassion, empathy, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective (Wheater 16).

Theatre has been a safe space to experiment with social and emotional issues for thousands of years. It allows people to experience emotions and consider issues from the protected spot as an observer. It is for this reason that theatre has been increasing in prevalence as a form of therapy (Wheater 17).

Theatre Therapy has been gaining in popularity within the field of psychotherapy over the past few decades. There are a number of different forms that theatre or drama therapy has taken. For example, the use of improvisation, puppets, and clowns have become popular to address a range of psychological and emotional issues among patients (Wheater 17-18).

Theatre processes and improvisational techniques, such as guided sensory experiences in which free association allows the mind to travel without restrictions , allows for individuals to follow a unique path towards the heart of the problem and find a solution or recovery process that is specifically for them (Wheater 18).

Drama therapy creates an inclusive, appreciative, and playful atmosphere in which all feel welcome and that promotes self-expression, as drama therapy groups are no-judgment arenas where anyone can go to seek help (Wheater 18).

When people view themselves as the problem or as being inherently attached to the problem, it is easy for the issue at hand to become overwhelming; if the person is the problem then how can it be fixed? Theatre therapy, however, allows people to use their imaginations to create a dramatic reality, a reality that is almost true, in order to see outside of themselves, confront stressful situations, and form the positive attitudes necessary for growth (Wheater 18).

Improvisation is a tool used by actors to stay ‘in the moment,’ or to be actively present, open, and flexible to anything that is coming next. Improvisational therapy is used in the same spirit. Improvisational therapy forces the patient to be and stay in the moment, to listen and respond to the other members of the moment, and to be able to constantly evolve (Wheater 19).

Improvisational therapy allows the patient to share his or her story and then watch as it is enacted by peers. This technique not only gives the patient dignity by allowing him or her to know that peers are listening, but it also creates the much-needed distance from the problem and allows patient to become spectator while gaining the advantage of observer (Wheater 19).

Puppets are a very useful tool in theatre therapies. As much of theatre therapy revolves around externalizing the problem, puppets give patients, particularly children, an object on which to project the problem (Wheater 20).

The puppets, however, provide patients with the ability to view their problem as a separate thing, with a name, a personality, and a voice. The patients can talk to the puppet and react to the puppet, the patients can push the puppet aside and decide to not have any more to do with it, because it is outside of themselves. The puppet is a symbol of the problem and makes it much less overwhelming to deal with (Wheater 20).

Theatre therapy is a great tool in the world of psychology. Theatre therapy allows people to separate themselves from their problems and deal with them as a story, or a play. Theatre creates a safe space through which people may explore a range of emotions and theatre therapy is simply a formalized way of using this to cope with life’s issues. (Wheater 21).

The goal of the newly developing programs is primarily to help children with autism develop their social- emotional skills, a main concern of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis (Wheater 21).

Although theatre therapy for children with autism is a new concept, recent research has been very promising for the positive effects that such programs can have. Theatre programs for children with autism are developed with the goal in mind of improving social-emotional functioning and reducing stress towards new situations (Wheater 22).

These programs also provide children with the opportunity to increase their confidence and develop passions as they practice to improve their skills, feel a sense of community, and have a means for self-expression (Wheater 22).

Further, theatre helps children with autism to practice real-life situations and conflicts in a safe environment as there are no true consequences and a lack of pressure to react ‘correctly’ to a certain situation. Children with autism struggle with their reactions to difficult or tense situations and these theatrical experiences allow them the opportunity to experiment with different responses without any lasting consequence (Wheater 22).

Not only does theatre help children with autism improve upon their socialization skills, but it also helps them to improve upon their communication and theory of mind, or perspective- taking, skills. Being an actor takes much more than delivering the lines, it takes a great deal of nonverbal expression such as gestures and facial cues, as well as empathy and large-group skills (Wheater 23).

These theatre programs showed that the children had great improvements in many specific areas. For example, the children involved showed a great improvement in face identification skills, which children with autism often struggle with (Wheater 24).

Theatre also places a huge emphasis on the use of voice and vocal tone. The three modes of communication include vocal tone and volume, body language, and facial expression. Theatre programs force participants to carefully consider the way that they are going to use each one of those modes of communication (Wheater 24).

The Floortime approach is used to help develop a child’s relationships with others. This approach is very individualized and is designed to improve social skills and language (Wheater 26).

For example, if the child’s play routine is to run around the playground flapping his arms, the interventionist is to follow him around the playground with flapping arms. The idea is to use the child’s choices to bring pleasure and comfort while encouraging the child to interact with you (Wheater 26).

The findings from recent research on the use of theatre as therapy for children with autism can greatly impact the way that we teach all children, not just children with autism. Theatrical experiences are wonderful for teaching a wide range of skills, both academic and of a social-emotional nature. All students can benefit from being given the opportunity to step outside of their personal perspectives and states of mind to explore the situations, conflicts, beliefs, behaviors, and motives of others (Wheater 28).

Most of the research done on theatre therapy for children with autism relates to the social-emotional benefits. There is not a great deal done regarding the cognitive or academic benefits of integrating theatre into therapy programs and classrooms. Further investigation into the subject should consider these aspects of children’s development (Wheater 28).


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