Ava Rigelhaupt is a founding member with the neurodiverse theatre company, Spectrum Theatre Ensemble of Providence. She lives in Rhode Island and is a rising junior at Sarah Lawrence College. She took a gap year between sophomore and junior year to work with #STEProvidence. In her free time, Ava enjoys writing, horseback riding, and making soups. Feel free to check out Ava’s other blog on Cultures of Dignity!
Enjoy Ava’s piece on how theatre can teach social skills by honoring everyone’s worth and experience.
Acting Out: How a Theatre Techniques Class Teaches Social Skills
By Ava Rigelhaupt
The revolution begins in the classroom. This revolution is taking place at The Autism Project of Rhode Island in a social skills class called “Curtain Call.” Peer to peer interaction is often one of the biggest challenges for people on the spectrum. Research shows that acting and theatre are some of the best ways to teach and learn social skills. After all, acting is scripted interaction where mistakes and social faux pas are accepted and encouraged.
The mission of Spectrum Theatre Ensemble of Providence (STE) is to “evolve the tools, practitioners, and awareness necessary to empower those who struggle to make themselves heard.” STE is challenging society’s idea of what it means to have a “disability.” The prevailing belief in society is that people with disabilities cannot work, (in the arts or otherwise), or can only work at McDonald’s. STE is creating the next generation of artists with disabilities and giving them the tools to carve out their own space in society.
When Clay B. Martin, the founder and artistic director of STE, first asked me and two other STE interns to assistant teach at the Autism Project of Rhode Island, I was incredulous. “You want me to teach other young developing humans?” I thought, “I’m not even done with my undergrad. What do I have to offer?” I’ve never taught before, save for the horseback riding summer camps where kids labeled horse anatomy. Summer camp is a lot different than a classroom, and none of those kids, (known), were on the autism spectrum. Taking a gap year from college as well as working with a new neurodiverse theatre company was a ton of firsts; here I am again with firsts. It was my first time formally teaching, and first time interacting with younger kids on the autism spectrum. But, like jumping in with STE, I’m so glad I did.
I get to see first-hand what it looks like to teach the next generation.
I get to see first-hand what it looks like to teach the next generation. My role is to observe the classroom overall and take notes on what improved, how the exercises could be changed, or record amazing student one-liners said during scene improv that we want to keep in our final project. I enjoy seeing the students grow, becoming more confident with themselves and their onstage decisions each week.
Emma¹ is a great example of this growth. She started off as mostly nonverbal², struggling to express herself and inner life. She was tentative and didn’t wish to participate in the class. One time, we heard Emma mutter something to one of the aids. When asked, the aid told us, “Emma doesn’t like Disney.” Since a lot of the class did like Disney, we were using those characters and motifs as starting points for our improv games and icebreakers. When we learned Emma didn’t like Disney, we asked the class if it was alright to take a break from those stories and try something new. Suddenly, Emma was willing to join.
Why didn’t Emma just speak out in the first place? For many people on the autism spectrum, verbalizing and expressing their inner world so others can understand is a challenge. By the time we find the words, the situation has changed. Even if it’s a couple extra minutes, the impatient and oblivious world moves on; we have not. Our minds work at different speeds and wavelengths than neurotypical minds. I compensate for this by staying quiet. I try to make sure what I’m about to say is really relevant to the conversation, which can be a different conversation than the one my mind was processing. (Yes, it’s taxing). Too often, school-aged girls – like me – quiet and following directions – are overlooked. For one teacher with 25 students, the quiet one is the least concern. The teacher thinks there are no problems with Miss Quiet. But, just because there are no tantrums or outbursts does not mean there are no problems, no misunderstandings, no undiagnosed neuro-differences.
For many people on the autism spectrum, verbalizing and expressing their inner world so others can understand is a challenge. By the time we find the words, the situation has changed.
Fewer girls are diagnosed with autism than boys. Boys often are more disruptive in their Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presentation. I know for one teacher and 25 students and a full schedule to get through, noticing and analyzing the quiet student can be an impossible feat. Luckily, this is not our class. Our class has four students and three teachers, along with aids/teachers from The Autism Project. This allows enough personal attention to make sure all the students are on the same page. If someone is having a hard day or not grasping an exercise, we can change direction, maybe returning to a familiar activity. The most rewarding is when we change the class because of students’ positive steps forward. Such as Emma speaking on a regular basis. Emma is now playing pranks on the teachers, and speaking nonstop. Through our inclusive theatre work, she is finding more opportunities to communicate. Wanting to gently challenge Emma, we gave her a leading role in our final project, we made her a nonverbal heroine who expresses herself through gestures. As we progressed, Emma gained confidence. We realized her role needed lines!
To an outsider, our class progress appears slow and hard to quantify. Like most learning experiences, some days we take 5 steps forward, yet other days we take 20 steps back. Each week, I enjoy seeing the smiles and eagerness of the students who, like us, are just as surprised at their own growth. While our classwork is a mere hour of the kids’ lives, during that hour they are told they are worthy, valued, and listened to just like the neurotypicals of our society. People with disabilities deserve the same respect, resources, and rights. Because what is normal? What is neurotypical? Answer those questions. Perhaps society needs to go back to the drawing board, like Spectrum Theatre Ensemble does every week at the Autism Project.
While our classwork is a mere hour of the kids’ lives, during that hour they are told they are worthy, valued, and listened to just like the neurotypicals of our society.People with disabilities deserve the same respect, resources, and rights. Because what is normal? What is neurotypical?
¹ Name is changed for privacy.
² Some people who are nonverbal physically cannot speak. The exact reason and brain connection etc. has not been found. Some people who are nonverbal have the physical function of speech, but verbal communication and expression is difficult. Please remember that not speaking doesn’t always equal not comprehending! (Assessing the Minimally Verbal School-Aged Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder)
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