Immersing students with autism spectrum disorder means having inclusive extracurricular opportunities.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”
-from As You Like It by WIlliam Shakespeare
When William Shakespeare wrote these words, he was commenting on the roles we play in our daily lives and the drama that surrounds us. For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, theatre, whether on stage or behind the scenes, can be a powerful tool for membership in a community. Participating in a play not only develops a sense of confidence, competence, and self worth, but also can help students with ASD to feel that they belong and even can improve their interpersonal skills beyond the stage. Success comes from developing competence and earning a place in the group.
Kara Zimmerman, a professional actor, currently teaches theatre and music at Oakstone Academy in the school’s Academic and Social Immersion Model. She was intrigued to have students of all abilities try out for theatre, as she was aware of many studies that show how well students with ASD do in the arts. However, she commented that it “blows my mind to see kids going far beyond what they are supposed to do”. Kara runs the theater program at Oakstone just as the rest of the school is run. Students with ASD are considered full members of the community and try out for theatre with their classmates, earning their roles. She does not cast per diagnosis, but by role, choosing the student who is best suited for the part. “Diagnosis doesn’t matter,” Kara commented, “I forget we are in an immersion setting because all the kids are just there to put on a great show.” As she has been more involved with casting and directing shows at Oakstone over the past few years, Kara has seen the benefits of theatre for her students with ASD. “Theatre fosters support and understanding. It teachers about emotion and empathy….it really helps connect the dots between emotions and actions.” Kara also commented that she sees her cast and crew without diagnoses benefit as well, as the team approach and supportive environment of theatre really reinforce the role of peer models and the idea that everyone is learning from one another.
Grant Carpenter oversees the backstage and technical crew of the Oakstone theatre department. As a lifelong theatre participant, Grant enjoys facilitating the camaraderie of theatre. “Theatre requires teamwork from every single person,” Grant added, “Any part can–and does–make a scene.” This message is reiterated in how he runs crew, focusing on each individual’s ability to help in a particular area as they prepare a vision for the staging of the show. “Some students are going to be better with detail work, while others are really fast and efficient spreading paint. We need people to work on the backdrop, the props, the costumes, the tech. All those abilities are needed as we work towards one cohesive presentation.”
Both Kara and Grant commented about the idea of watching students exceed expectations that society sets for them because of their diagnosis. “Parents will tell me,” Kara shared, “about being told their child will never talk or never have friends. Then, you see them on stage and it blows my mind to watch them going beyond what they were supposed to do.” Grant is constantly amazed to see kids “who don’t talk much outside of theatre get up on stage and drop an awesome monologue.” Kara may have said it best, when reflecting about the impact theatre has on her students: “I cry every time we do a show. Every time.”
Several members of the recent middle school play at Oakstone and their parents also talked about the impact that being a part of the theatre had on them. Because all three students have ASD, they will be referred to by pseudonyms: Alex, Betsy, and Diane. Alex and Betsy both had roles onstage, while Diane was a second year member of the crew.
Alex shared that he opted to do theatre to be with his friends. “I felt excited because I got to be with my friends. It feels good to go to school and be in plays and have friends.” He commented, “people with autism should try doing plays, so they aren’t left out.” Betsy also felt students with ASD should participate in plays, commenting, “Even if you can’t talk, you can act it out. You can be in the group.” Both actors and Diane enjoyed being part of a group or team. Diane added, “I know a lot more students now. It helps give me social practice to be in theatr.e It also makes school more fun and positive. Theatre is the most fun thing I’ve joined.” The idea of being a member of a group and working towards a common goal is crucial for students with ASD, and theatre gives them first hand experience with that.
Alex commented that he “didn’t feel nervous because I was prepared. Sometimes people get stage fright. I didn’t but some people did. I was kind to people who were nervous.” Alex had the opportunity to coach and support his peers, both with and without ASD, allowing him to be a leader. Betsy, on the other hand, did feel a little nervous about remembering her lines, but was reassured by Kara’s direction. “Acting is reacting, that’s what Ms. Kara told us,” Betsy commented. “That means just pay attention and try your best.” Diane is not as interested in being on stage, but plans on continuing theatre in high school as well. “I like crew, not being seen, hiding, but having fun. It is better for my insecurities, but I still am participating in something.” Diane felt like participating in crew made some of her social anxiety less noticeable, as she was working with a team of students, with and without ASD, who all prefer to be behind the scenes. “Crew is still a lot of fun and you all help each other. We joke around and even taught some kids about making jokes so they could laugh along with us.”
Diane’s mother has seen her self-worth grow since she began participating in theatre. “She finds real pride in being in crew. It builds on her interest in the arts, uses her talent. She is always excited to show me her work.” She has also seen Diane come out of her shell and be more willing to take risks related to social activities and feel the payoff. “Theatre is a place that she feels she fits in. (Diane) is excited to show others that crew is not a consolation prize; it’s just as fulfilling as being on stage.” Alex’s mom has also seen theatre as a vehicle to help Alex build his confidence. “Theatre gives him full membership in the group, not charity inclusion. He earned it.” For Alex, theatre is a place to put his phenomenal memory to use, and a place to allow others to see his personality and humor, which his mom feels he keeps hidden 95% of the time. “His past teachers saw him at the show and were wowed that he was so funny and brave onstage.” She elaborated, “This is a kid who at age 3 had maybe 10 words he spoke. At age 9, he whisper-talked in every class. Now, he is on stage, projecting, being funny!”
The most rewarding part of offering immersive experiences in theatre is seeing the ways it impacts students’ confidence and skills in other areas. Parents and staff alike see this happen time and again among students with ASD who participate in theatre. “Theatre was a spark for (Alex). He wants to go see the high school play now. He is doing more social planning–asking kids if they are participating in other activities and clubs. He is leaving our family in social situations to go be silly with friends. He makes friends outside of his classroom social group. He makes comments about what others are doing and wanting to do those things too–benefitting from positive peer pressure.” Betsy made the connection between studying her lines and studying her school work: “Learning lines makes you feel better at knowing what to do. It’s the same as studying for class.” Diane added, “theatre keeps you flexible. Things will go wrong along the way. You have to go with it, not lose it.”
In Academic and Social Immersion, participating in extracurriculars has power because participation is earned. No one is there as a mascot or to meet a quota. No one is there with an adult helper or aide. Everyone who participates is there because they have promise and potential. All students are expected to participate, to carry their weight, and ultimately to play their part.