Intersecting Theatre and Autism

Pratima Sinha

CEO, DSR Educational Society, Birla Open Minds International School, Hyderabad

As Adam Blatner, a child psychiatrist, states “Drama offers a rich range of activities which can be applied in the service of developing spontaneity and a broader role repertoire in education.”

I was very excited when I came across a wonderful theatre artist who had pursued a Diploma in Theatre as Alternate Therapy for Autism. I immediately introduced this therapy to the school’s Special Education Department. It brought unbelievably positive changes in children who came on the autism spectrum and had communication and behaviour issues. I saw these children blooming, imbibing new skills at an amazing speed, and having the confidence to present themselves.

To share the practice with other special educators, we organize regular workshops to create awareness and spread the word about the Alternate Therapy for Autism among the Special Educators of Hyderabad Schools.

Before proceeding further, let’s quickly understand autism in children. Autism, a complex neurobehavioral condition, hampers a child’s ability to interact socially. They have trouble understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings and find it extremely hard to express themselves.

Children with autism are visual rather than auditory learners. Most of them react adversely to high decibel sounds and general noises and are more comfortable with adults than with peers. They are concrete thinkers and learn better when taught one-on-one.

Needs of children with autism

  • A good communication system.
  • A sound behaviour management plan.
  • A well-structured everyday routine.
  • Trained personnel who knows the child’s functioning.
  • Consistency in the manner all the caregivers “talk” to the child.
  • A learning environment where the child can interact with children without autism.
  • Daily routine should have some choice-making option for the child.
  • Sensory integration therapy (by a trained occupational therapist)
  • Auditory integration training
  • Stress relief

I would like to share three case studies of students on the autistic spectrum learning through theatre practices.

Case 1

A chapter of Social Studies of class 7 involved learning the lineage of Mughal Emperors. The special educator found it challenging to make children understand the chronology of the emperors and therefore sought the help of Drama. The chapter had clear reasons why one Emperor was dethroned by another and this was taken as the base for Drama.

Each child in the team was given a character and an action related to the characteristic of the emperor. They were made to take turns and present their character in order (this included taking names of their own character and the era they ruled). After 4 to 5 rehearsals, children not only remembered the order and the era of their own characters but also of their classmates’. This was done in July 2015 and my children still remember the chapter today after coming to class VIII.

Case 2

Mathematics is all about knowing the basics thoroughly. If the concept of the number line is not understood correctly, the possibility of learning addition and subtraction becomes lean. Therefore for a class that was struggling with the number line, a theatre game of number line was devised. This special number line had a few properties kept – for example – towards the right side of ‘Zero’ there was 1 ‘pen’, 2 ‘pencils’, 3 ‘erasers’ and so on kept. And on the left side of ‘Zero’ were kept photographs of 1 ‘Laptop’, 2 ‘Phones’ and so on.

Now, children were given the props in hand from the right side of the line. And when the teacher named them, they had to go and stand on the line, matching the props on the line. Children are told things that they have in hand, are represented in a ‘+’ sign.

They were asked if they have a laptop in their hand when they answer in negative they are told that these objects and their numbers will be represented in ‘-‘. So now it becomes easy to understand the basic concept of the number line. With 3 or 4 reruns of this game, it will become popular with the children. Now the teacher can build on this topic to even teach ‘Carrying’ the numbers from one side of the number line to another.

Case 3

Student ‘K’ (Name not spelt due to privacy reasons) from the spectrum is a 9-year-old, studying in a regular school stands on the mild autism scale as on June 2016. He experiences high auditory vibrations and therefore makes vocal sounds due to the discomfort. His first reaction to a jungle scene in the classroom was to fight the sounds made by the other participants imitating as animals, by producing vocal rhythmic sound patterns of his choice and close his years.

At this, a small variation was made in the skit and he was given an ear mask of a rabbit and his vocal sounds were merged with the sounds of other animals. He loved to run and hop and the character of Rabbit suited him. So after this change, K was never secluded in the act. He was happy doing what he wanted and still be part of the applause!

These are just a few examples of the success stories achieved through drama covered in a fun, Theatre Games, Story Telling, Mime, Improvisations, Role Plays and Rehearsed Responses.

Drama can help autistic children in:

  • Improving eye contact and communication.
  • Increasing attention span and facilitating learning.
  • Improving social skills through role-playing and group work.
  • Engaging the child/adult in pretend play and igniting their imagination.
  • Identifying the hidden talent through acting.

Drama offers a” rich range of activities” that can bring about a transformational and experimental education system. I have personally recorded the role of theatre in providing catalytic experiences for self-transformation. Increased levels of confidence, improvement in self-esteem and positive behavioural changes coupled with improved academic participation/performance are observed.

Pratima Sinha

CEO, DSR Educational Society, Birla Open Minds International School, Hyderabad