Autism is a group of brain development disorders that have a variety of manifestations. The hallmark of autism is the inability to interact normally with others using both verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
Essentially, autism interferes with the affected person’s ability to communicate, interact socially, and behave normally in social situations. Autism affects children of all nationalities and races.
A cinematic depiction of a person with autism spectrum disorder can be seen in the Academy Award-winning movie Rain Man (1988) starring Dustin Hoffman as “Ray” and Tom Cruise as his brother “Charlie.”
In 2013, physicians decided to collectively call the variations and subtypes of autism (including Asperger syndrome) “autism spectrum disorder.” This article will use both terms interchangeably.
There is no current way to detect autism spectrum disorder in-utero (before birth). There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder.
We have discussed this condition at length in a previous article, “What is autism and how is it treated?” in the Spokesman-Recorder issue of June 8, 2017. It remains accessible on MSR’s website.
Drama therapy is a well-known, well-used approach to help people who have a wide array of conditions that interfere with their ability to interact well with others. Drama therapy uses exercises commonly practiced in the theatre such as scene acting, improvisation, and physical acting.
The goal is to improve and strengthen communication skills that can be applied to real-life situations. For people with autism who also have fundamental verbal skills, the exercises can be both enjoyable and very helpful.
Many people with autism have solid verbal skills, but they are challenged when it comes to interacting with others on a social level. An interesting finding is that many persons with autism have a trait called echolalia. In this condition, the echolalic person can repeat, verbatim, words and phrases others say.
For example, the other day I had an autistic patient, and it was the first time I had met her. I asked her, “How are you today?” She looked at me and smiled and said right back to me, “How are you today?” Almost everything I said to her, she repeated back to me.
Parents have noticed that children with autism and echolalia enjoy watching television and movies. They often can repeat large sections of dialogue perfectly with the same tone and inflections.
My autistic patient was no exception. Her mother told me she absolutely loved Disney movies, knew almost every song perfectly, and had an absolutely beautiful voice.
The beauty of drama therapy is that it lets persons with autism use their verbal and imitation skills to practice and learn “lines” that they can use in social settings. Various social situations can be modeled and role-played giving the child a solid level of comfort and familiarity with the situation so that when social interaction is encountered in real life, the child can engage in a more normal manner.
As time goes by, in addition to using dialogue that can also be used in social settings, they can develop skills allowing them to improvise and further improve speaking skills combined with other skills such as recognizing and reacting to the body language of others. It allows persons with autism to actually star in their own show, which builds confidence and self-esteem and gains the respect and valid approval of the participating audience.
Students engage in practice sets covering a wide variety of social situations encountered by people their age. Although it will not make a person with autism “normal,” all of these learned skills can nevertheless result in more effective, comfortable and successful social interactions in real life.
A recognized leader in the field of drama therapy for persons with autism is Cindy Schneider. She has authored a book entitled Acting Antics: A Theatrical Approach to Teaching Social Understanding to Kids and Teens with Asperger Syndrome. According to Schneider, drama therapy allows persons with autism to improve their ability to:
- increase self-confidence not only in performing but in social interactions
- improve self-esteem and pride in their accomplishments
- improve recognition of emotions in others
- improve identification and labeling of their own emotions
- enjoy new leisure-time activity in a group where they can be successful
- enjoy a new awareness of volume levels and beginning modulation of vocal levels
- enjoy new skills for functioning as part of a group
- enjoy new skills for following directions
- improve the ability to interact with peers
Because the field of drama therapy for persons with autism and autism spectrum disorder is relatively new, it can be challenging to find a good drama therapist who is skilled and adept in teaching drama therapy to persons on the autism spectrum. A good alternative is to work with a combination of both a therapist and a seasoned theatrical teacher.
Many of the identical skills, games, and exercises used in traditional theatre will work marvelously and be easily adapted for persons on the autism spectrum. If you know of someone with autism, drama therapy may certainly be worth investigating.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.