When Bonnie Neumann, founder of Drama Interaction wrote in my Minnesota autism and play group on facebook about her theater class for children with special needs, I had to find out more about it. I had read some research recently into how theater programs had helped children learn social skills. I have always loved theater (probably why I have no problem playing with a child while being videoed and watched by a team of staff.) I called her up and offered to volunteer in order to learn more and see how it works. I am so used to working with children one on one so the idea of a class of children with autism seemed a bit daunting to me and I wanted to see how it went.
Bonnie is the perfect blend of cheerleader, facilitator, show person, people allower, and theater coach. She grew up in theater, starting dancing when she was young and continuing to perform her whole life. She designed the adaptive theater class many years ago with the help of Special Education Teachers. Bonnie wanted everyone to have the chance to experience theater and it just so turns out that theater gives everyone a chance to act out and process some of the little nuances of human interaction. Thus it makes the perfect class to work on social skills too!
The class followed a schedule that Bonnie customized for each day and allowed the students the opportunity to have plenty of movement while they acted. It included activities like body warm ups, voice warm ups, tongue twisters, acting out emotions, acting out things that happen to you, theater games, improv games, practicing lines, acting out skits. Each week built off the last week’s skills helping students ease into learning a performance.
The staff was partly professional staff and educated volunteers. We participated as well in order to model the exercises and of course have fun. There was enough staff for lots of encouragement and occasional individual attention when needed that didn’t distract from others. Everyone was really accepting of everyone’s sensory needs and allowed for each person to stim/ism/take care of themselves and when appropriate encouraged them again to participate.
I was blown away on the very first day by the amount of enthusiasm, participation and creativity of all the students in the class. I helped out in 2 classes, one for children younger than 12 and one for teenagers between 12 and 18. The students were all over the spectrum although they were all verbal. The classes were 45 minutes each. While they followed a schedule, the classes varied a lot, the energy was often intense, and the concepts were all fairly new to all the kids. Even so all the students did fantastic! When it came time for add on storytelling at the end – I have never heard such creativity and big picture thinking. It was incredible!
I think a lot of the fun and ease of the class goes to the incredibly accepting atmosphere that Drama Interaction puts forth. We all were totally okay with whatever happened, if a student needed to run a bit, that was okay, we just gently brought them back. If a student had a sensory meltdown there was no pressure to change and participate. The students and staff did a great job supporting each other at exactly the stage they were at.
I think this sort of class would be rather easy to start for those who have some expertise. I know it could help children everywhere if there are those generous souls who would be accepting enough and confident enough to look into these programs. Bonnie certainly seems willing to help all she meets.
For those near the Twin Cities of Minnesota a new class is about to happen with Drama Interaction. You still have to time to register. Classes start next week, January 12th and there are various times throughout the metro area. Here is the link for more information http://www.cokartscenter.com/dramainteraction501c3.html I know I will be back sometime in the future, its also mega fun to volunteer!
In the meantime, I have always considered playroom time with your child as a sort of improv theater. We are always modeling social skills through fun and excitement in the playroom. Children learn and process best through play and experience. The more excited we are to play with them, the more they will learn. So the next time you go into the playroom, tap into your inner actor and amp up your animations. The more expressive you are with your body and face the more engaged your child will be and the easier they will be able to interpret your body language.