Using Theatre to Act Through Autism and Bullying

Using Theatre to Act Through Autism and Bullying

Children with autism can have difficulties speaking with and interacting with other individuals. It can be stressful for them to comprehend what others think and feel. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to express themselves to a full extent.

For Jacob Redmon, who has Asperger’s syndrome, theatre proved to be a way for him to show his true character and feelings. For this sister, Rachel Redmon, it is an opportunity to confront bullying.

The Positive Action Community Theater

The Encinitas-based Positive Action Community Theater (PACT) was founded in 2008 by Kathryn Campion and her husband. Shortly after the theater was founded, the Autism community reached out to them. “[They] told us that theatre was the perfect vehicle to learn how to communicate and interact socially, the main challenges of those with Autism. We were inspired by their love for their children and changed our focus to serving people with autism through the performing arts,” said Kathryn. Funding for the PACT programs came from a grant made by the city of Encinitas and the Mizel Family Foundation Community Grant Program.

Sandy Redmon, Jacob and Rachel’s mother, signed them up for the PACT the very same year that the theater was founded. At the time, Jacob was 11 and Rachel was 5. She thought that the theater could help Jacob to better develop his social skills and that it would be an entertaining activity for Rachel. “I knew that improvisational theatre could help [Jacob] because it helps you with thinking on your feet and reacting quickly,” said Sandy.

How theatre helps Jacob’s thought processes

At the beginning, Jacob had a hard time speaking in public and acting out different characters. “I remember specifically there was a time when we did scripted theatre and we were playing characters. I was so angry at what my character was and saying this wasn't me, I don't want to be this. I refused to act like that. I was so fed up,” he recalled. As more children joined the PACT and his mother, who was familiar with autism and had experience teaching, undertook the classes, Jacob got more comfortable within his surroundings. Now 21, Jacob has learned to organize his thoughts and think on his feet. “I kind of stopped with my fixation of not being a part of things because I realized that if you just keep staying on the sidelines, then a lot of things will pass you by,” he said.

Kathryn observed Jacob over the years and noted that he grew from a boy who refused to make eye contact with others to a man with great confidence and openness. “Often people with autism are interested and gifted in the arts, and mastering an art provides them with an ally that helps them deal with the daily challenges of living with autism. Theatre is all about social interaction. It provides ongoing opportunities to observe and practice the art of relating to others. The performing arts is a natural setting that builds camaraderie and brings people isolated by autism back into interaction with their peers,” she said.

Theatre and bullying

Recently, the PACT had taken on a sensitive subject that every young individual can relate to: bullying. Sandy was put in charge of the program and she admitted to conducting much research on the very subject. When her daughter Rachel told her about her own experience with bullying, the program became personal to Sandy. She worked hard to develop it and it was finally named ‘Beyond Bullying’.

Rachel became a member of the ‘Beyond Bullying’ program, assisting with the presentations at different middle schools and high schools throughout San Diego. The presentations include unique skits, quotes, as well as short videos. Rachel says that her goal is to make individuals more aware of the impact that an unresolved problem, such as bullying, can have. “Even if you've been bullied, you've probably bullied someone in your life without even knowing it. People just don't understand the impact of their words,” she said. Her brother Jacob, who helps lead the improvisation classes, says that his goal is to make others understand that individuals with autism should not be treated any differently from others just because of their condition. “I honestly don't like having the whole title of Asperger’s syndrome anymore because I feel that I no longer want that to apply to me anymore. Not to demean the title of Asperger’s, but I don't think people fully understand it. Autism has a bit of a bad rep. I want to show that I'm really no different than any other person” he said.

Preparation for other life experiences

In addition to helping young individuals with autism by offering acting lessons, the PACT also offers singing and dancing lessons, as well as pretend improvisation of job interviews. The theatre’s program offers an approach for young individuals with autism to learn from different experiences.

Similarly, new research from Vanderbilt University suggests that through the arts, young individuals with autism can improve their social skills. In 2009, Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, began teaching drama to children aged 7-18 with high-functioning autism.“When you talk with a person with autism about something that is interesting to them, they can do it. Their challenge is when you switch topics,” said Corbett. Through her SENSE Theatre program, Corbett teaches children drama exercises such as improvisation and role-playing. Together with typically older, more mature developing adolescents; the children sing, dance, and conduct their performances in front of their parents and the public.

In a recent study, Corbett found that the autistic children in her drama class were better able to understand different viewpoints, recognize facial expressions, and control their anxiety. Furthermore, using brain-imaging tests, she found that children who completed her program had brainwave levels that were more alike to those children without autism. Other researchers at the University of Kent also found similar advantages of the performing arts, more specifically drama classes, for children with autism.

They observed the behavior of 22 children aged 7-12 for 10 weeks. The researchers found that all the children showed some sort of improvement, especially in the recognition of facial expressions. 9 children showed improvement in the recognition of facial expressions, while 6 children showed improvement in social interaction. “It’s an opportunity for children to create their own narratives in an unconstrained, unfamiliar environment. They find this empowering, and we know from the psychology literature that individuals who are empowered enjoy increased attention skills and an improved sense of well-being” said David Wilkinson, professor at the University of Kent and head psychologist of the research project.

Wilkinson and other researchers indicate that their findings are encouraging and support further research. Like Corbett, who is convinced to prove that “acting is transformative”, they plan to expand their research in order to fully uncover its potential.