We had the happy news yesterday that Stage Play Acting Classes will be funded for another year through an Arts Grant! Yeah! And thank-you to my director, Carol Roberts for pursuing funding and to Duluth Playhouse Children's Program for collaborating with us. This means that we will be able to do four, ten-week sessions of acting classes with children over the course of the next year. Our target group are young children, five to nine years old, but we are already dreaming of a program that will offer acting classes and performance opportunities to older children with autism as well. I would never want to give the impression that helping children with autism learn social skills is an easy educational goal, but after a year of using Acting and Theater as a teaching context, I can't imagine a more natural or enjoyable way to do this work. I think we are justified in dreaming that Stage Play Acting Classes will become a long-term and more extensive program in Duluth, Minnesota over the coming years.
Here is why acting is such a natural way to work on social skills for any child and particularly for children with autism. Acting is one of the natural ways that human beings play. Even though we don't all do our acting in formal classes or on a stage, acting is a way that we all learn new social skills throughout our life. I see young children acting like older children or adults every day here at the clinic where I work. It is not hard to recognize a studied pout, a surprisingly adult-like greeting, or a theatrical show of tears as a moment of acting where a young child is trying out a way of being in the social world. I don't see as many of these moments with children who have autism but I do see these children trying out scenes and social roles as well--particularly as language skills improve. All children learn how to act socially by acting out roles that they have seen and social pretend play is just spontaneous theater that children organize for themselves. There are many researchers in child development who suggest that pretend play is a kind of play that all children should be engaged in for many more hours than they currently are due to our more structured social lifestyle, our new enchantment with electronic play, and the schools current focus on testing and academic performance over unstructured play and the arts programs. The social skills learned in social pretend play are more associated with life-long success than are early acquisition of academic skills. So, providing the opportunity to engage in social pretend play is important for all children but how much more-so is it a priority for children with autism! Opportunities simply will not occur for many children with autism unless we specifically create them.
Providing young children with autism a stage and the opportunity to learn social communication skills through acting is an almost obvious idea. It is possible to create both the structure and the explicit instruction that these children need and at the same time provide the opportunity for social pretend play with room for expressions of imagination and imitation just naturally a part of the activity. And yet, like all programs for children with autism spectrum disorder, a great deal of planning and specialized knowledge is required and it is labor intensive to pull off a good acting class for a group of children with autism and thus the need for funding. Well, we got over that hurdle and we have the funding for at least one more year and for at least four more groups of children. Yeah!