I have had the most amazing opportunity. For the last few weeks I have spent each Tuesday and Thursday volunteering at a social skills camp for autistic kids. The camp was held at the school where I will be teaching Drama at in the fall. This is a school for kids with learning differences and there are definitely kids on the autism spectrum enrolled at the school. However, many of the children I worked with at the summer camp are much more challenged than the students who attend the school during the year.
When I arrived the first day I was asked to be the leader for the high school group as their teacher was on vacation. I was happy to have this assignment as I adore teenagers and wanted to jump right in with the group. I did not have a clue what to expect, but the camp director told me that the kids were sweet and pretty much took care of themselves. Sheave me the camp schedule for the day and asked me to talk, talk, talk, to them, reminding me that the goal was to get them interacting as much as possible.
When I entered the classroom there were 6 or 7 young teenagers sitting at desks, looking worried. I introduced myself and told them that their teacher was on vacation and asked them each their names. They responded to me in voices that ranged from very loud – a young man with two hearing aids, to cartoonish, some speaking in high squeaky voices. There was also a boy who language skills were very limited and who said almost nothing except to repeat back to me what I had asked him. Most of the kids were able to hold casual conversations and responded fairly normally, but there were a couple of kids who dared one word answers or appeared not to understand the questions I'd asked.
The kid's range of levels of functioning was very interesting to me. I surprised as I held a relaxed conversation with one of the kids who actually appeared “normal” in every way, which he must be thinking to be in a situation with other kids who were so much more debilitated. Was this an obstacle for these children emotionally? Or did they understand that while they were in fact not as stranded socially as some of their fellow campers, they needed the skills practice offered by the camp?
Later I had the chance to listen to the conversation of a couple of the girls at the camp. They were discussing other school programs and talking about the meds that were on, the therapists they went to, the programs they attended, and the kinds of issues the other participants at the programs were dealing with. They appeared to take in stride the idea that they were diagnosed with a debilitating condition and were very openly discussing the issues that are located when living with autism. Again I surprised; what is it like for a child to be this kind of “different?” How much courage it must take them everyday to move through their lives, to try and plot a course through the social world we all struggle at times. Where we “normal” people struggle, without the added burden of living with a disorder that makes everything we experience more confusing and harder to navigate.
The kids who appeared to be completely unmindful of what was going on I soon discovered, were anything but oblivious. The almost completely silent teenagers soon proved to me that they were not only aware, but that they were all the time processing what was happening around them. I found that with enough support, they could participate and communicate appropriately.
One such instance of communication took place at the gymnastics facility where we had brought the campers. There was one boy who had been at the camp for two weeks before he had even said one word to anyone. Only just recently, he had begun to talk at all, but he appeared to have a transformation at the gym. The first time I noticed a change in him was when I was supervising the kids at the bouncing castle at one corner of the big room. There were 4 or 5 teens bouncing away to their hearts content and I was so surprised to see this mostly silent, normally worried looking guy, boinging around with the others. He had a huge grin on his face! Somehow the physical activity and the whimsical nature of the place we were visiting seemed to have broken through the barrier inside of him. He responded with a huge smile to my requests that he bounce higher and higher, and that he try to touch the ceiling with his head. And then, when a fellow camper fell over and was struggling to get up, this boy, who had not seen the least bit aware in the classroom of the needs of anyone at all, reached his hand down unbidden and helped his friend up.
The sight of this teenager emerging from his shell, responding socially to this new and different environment when he was all but unreachable in the classroom, made me wonder. There was a key to unlocking the barriers to interaction inside of the other kids. I wondered if there was a solution to the mystery that kept their social abilities sequested inside of these young people. Perhaps theater activities may be the answer for many kids with autism.
In the same way that physical activity brought out the smile and the warmth in my happily bouncing young friend, maybe working and playing with other kids in a drama class or on a show would do the same. It might just be the way to release their ability to interact more socially. The very nature of theatrical activities requires interaction. Kids with autism spectrum disorders have extreme difficulty interacting socially. But in the theater, the interaction is guided by the director and the need for independent resolutions to human social situations is taught to the actors as part of the activities. Theater arts activities put very little pressure on the participants to independently come up with solutions. But the practice of interaction still takes place, in rehearsal and guided improvisation. Through the organization of these activities in the theater, it seems that the benefits to the child or teen with social skills issues would be a positive one.