The Benefits of Youth Theater For Children and Teens With Asperger’s Syndrome

I sat on a hillside under big shade tree in a park and watched with pride as the young cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream trundled out of trucks and vans and began setting up the tents for one of our first performances of the season. The two large tents served as the upstage wall of the set as well as dressing room and prop storage for the actors. The metal frameworks of the tents were being assembled in an organized fashion; everybody from the youngest fairy to our most seasoned teenaged ingĂ©nue knew what their job was, owed to the fine leadership of my college aged stage manager and his assistant.

As I sat smiling and observing the cheerful actors and tech folks preparing for haytheatre the show, joking and calling out to each other in the way of all close knit casts, I felt someone approaching behind me. It was Jameson, a handsome, strong looking 15 year old with shoulder length hair who played Tom Snout in the show, doubling in the play within a play scene as the informative and patient Wall. Jameson was wandering past me aimlessly on his way to the picnic area. I called out to him. “Jameson? You need to be down with rest of the cast helping to set up the stage. The stage manager needs your help.”

Jameson stopped and looked at me curiously. He turned his head and gazed down the hill at the cast for a minute, and then out to the horizon.

“Oh, well, no…” he said. “You see, the tent might fall on me.” I smiled at him and continued on, “Well, the tent might fall, but it would be because you aren’t there to help hold it up while the other actors work on getting the tarp in place. Isn’t that one of the jobs assigned to you?” Again he looked at me and away. “Well…yes,” he said. “But you see it might fall on me.”

This went on for a while, me trying to get Jameson to understand that the entire cast worked together to assure that the set got built correctly and safely, and that he was safe from falling tent frames if he went down and did his job with the other kids. This line of reasoning got me nowhere however, and finally I invited Jameson to walk down with me to the tent building area and delivered him myself to our stage manager, who helped him find his place among the group of working teens and kids.

Jameson, a bright, talented kid with a disarming smile and a lot of physical energy, has Asperger’s Syndrome. It did not occur to him to consider being part of the laughing, active group, and he did not understand from what I was saying or how I was saying it that he was required to go down the hill and help.

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from impairments in social relationships and the ability to communicate and understand verbal and non-verbal communication. Their lack of ability to read social and facial cues often leads them to trouble as they blunder innocently into situations that they are socially unprepared to handle. In addition, these children may have an intense interest in one particular subject and will repeatedly bring up this topic in an inappropriate way during conversations.

Their literal translation of idiomatic speech and lack of ability to understand reciprocal speech patterns frequently keeps children with this condition from being successful in spontaneous social groups and individual relationships, and can lead them down a path of confused and inept associations with peers, family and community members.

Experiencing life as an ineffective communicator can leave the child suffering from AS with a loss of self esteem and self confidence. They are often subjected to ostracism and bullying from their peers, which can lead to further feelings of isolation, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and puts these children at a higher risk of self destructive behaviors and even suicide.

The treatments that have achieved success with children suffering from AS include teaching proper initiation of conversations, response to idiomatic speech and courtesy inquiries, as well as the art of sustaining a conversation appropriately. Attention is also given to the skills involved in interpreting non-verbal cues such as body posture and facial expression, and appropriateness of conversation topics.

Theater Arts activities are a great opportunity for kids with AS to get practice in appropriate social skills and behavior, to work on projects in a predetermined group of people toward a common goal, and to get actual practice in learning the rhythm of conversation, the nuances of body language and the fine art of facial expressions. In addition, the built-in opportunity for success (for who among us doesn’t know that the show must go on?) provides AS kids with an almost foolproof chance to experience the triumph of a job well done.

The communication that goes on between actors on a stage only looks easy, and then only if it is skillfully presented. As directors, we strive to nurture in our actors a sense of truth and hum.

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