Notes on The Development of Theatre Arts to Facilitate Social and Communication Skills for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Emmett)

“There is an emerging though limited body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of theatre-related activities to teach emotional recognition and expression, non-verbal behaviors and gestures, listening and conversation skills, eye contact, as well as strategies to handle a variety of social situations. Theatre arts offers a safe place for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities to learn and experiment with new behaviors, make mistakes to learn from them, form meaningful relationships with others and develop critical communication skills transferable to activities of daily life” (Goldstein & Therrien).

Traditional education and treatment methods for ASD have been demonstrated to teach valuable skills; however, generalization has long been a problem. That is, it has been a challenge for individuals with ASD to take what they learn in controlled environments and demonstrate their knowledge in a correct way, at the right time and in the right place (Goldstein & Therrien).

Other aspects of theatre including set design, staging, choreography and lighting also rely on social and linguistics skills leading to collaboration, compromise and cooperation. Theatre is a highly structured environment and may fit very well with the sometimes rigid, black and white thinking of individuals with ASD (Goldstein & Therrien).

Several theatre programs have involved individuals with ASD, including the widely known Miracle Project in Santa Monica, California. In 2008, the project achieved wide recognition after winning an Emmy award for an HBO documentary profiling five young project participants (Goldstein & Therrien).

Through neuro-inclusive main stage productions, musical cabarets, original showcases, and skills-based arts and career classes, EPIC Players breaks down the social stigma surrounding neuro-diverse communities, increases critical employment opportunities for individuals with ASD and seeks to pioneer increased inclusion in the mainstream arts (Goldstein & Therrien).

Additionally, in 2015 Suzanne Redding and colleagues at Butler University provided theatre rehearsal and production for students with ASD in a 10-week theatre experience. These authors found that when compared with a control group, students with theatre experience had significant and positive changes in the development of social and language skills. Most particularly, these students had significant improvement in social responsiveness; the ability to take the perspective of others and work cooperatively (Goldstein & Therrien).

Contemporary success stories of individuals living with ASD who have experienced significant growth in communication and interpersonal skills through the theatre arts can be found amongst the EPIC Player’s company membership. Through the access provided by EPIC, company members have auditioned for, and won roles in, Off-Broadway productions, television shows, and commercials; some members have even been featured in films shown across the nation (Goldstein & Therrien).

June December, a parent of EPIC Players Company Member writes, “Through the work of EPIC Players my son has learned to speak to people about topics other than his obsessions of video games and movies. Prior to EPIC Players my son only wanted to stay in his room with his video games and movies. Now in his second season of EPIC Players, he looks forward to the classes they provide, going to rehearsal for the Mainstage Production of which he has the lead role, and learning new skills like voice over work and on camera work which has now become a dream of his. Through the work of EPIC Players his abstract thinking ability has increased, and he is able to vocalize what he would like his future to be.” (Goldstein & Therrien).

Organizations and research studies such as the ones cited above are critical in helping youth with ASD overcome what is thought to be their most significant challenge: theory of mind. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of others is a key challenge for individuals with ASD. This challenge in ASD often prevents participation in social routines, meaningful conversations, group activities and engagement in behaviors that indicate a willingness to cooperate, collaborate, and demonstrate an understanding of the feelings of others. Theatre arts offers promising new experiences for individuals with ASD to build accurate theory of mind, communication and social skills (Goldstein & Therrien).

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