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The Big Barn Theater Group

An OT-run drama club teaches children with autism socialization skills and self-esteem.

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At the Center for Discovery, a facility in Harris, NY, that provides educational, clinical, residential, and social and creative arts programming to individuals with disabilities, a particular student with autism often self-talked and typically perseverated on negative events that occurred during the day, such as something inappropriate another student was yelling in class. Today, this same student is often found repeating, "Can we do it? Yes we can!" To have words and phrases loop over and over in your head isn't ideal, but if one had a choice, what could be better to have stuck in your mind than this encouraging phrase?

What has brought about this change in the student? He recently joined a drama club at his school called the Big Barn Theater Group. This group is the second of three drama clubs created at the Center for Discovery, as both staff and students have found the dramatic arts to be popular and meaningful.

Mirror exercise that works on developing eye contact, cause and effect between two individuals, body awareness, attention to task, as well as many other skills.

In the first exercise of each drama class, the students run around the room pretending they are running away from something, like a monster, or that they are walking in thick mud or another scenario of their choice. Once they find a safe cave to hide away from the monster or a lake to wash off their muddy feet, all the participants put their hands on top of one another and shout, "Can we do it? Yes we can!" It is a fun, vigorous activity to provide vestibular and proprioceptive input to help regulate everyone's level of arousal and improve each participant's ability to attend. It also provides a dose of self-esteem which helps them feel confident to participate in the subsequent drama-club activities and-more importantly-to participate in all their occupations of life.

As an occupational therapist with a passion for the dramatic arts, I consider myself very fortunate to work at a school with a large creative arts department and a widespread understanding of the importance and impact of the arts on all individuals. When I learned that the director of the creative arts department, a music therapist, had started a drama club, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to exercise my therapeutic use of self and begin to use this powerful medium as a therapeutic tool. I was very excited but I did have some concerns. Would I be able to consider this productive time or would I be sacrificing already scant paperwork time?

Working on a puppet skit they performed in June. Puppetry addresses many skills, both physical, cognitive and social, and allows many students to express themselves better, as they feel safer communicating through the puppet.

Once I came and observed for the first time, however, I was convinced that helping students to participate in this type of group was not only beneficial, it was ideal. I began to co-facilitate and help plan the exercises. As an occupational therapist, I was able to help provide visual supports such as marking the floor where the students should stand for various activities; create scripts using picture exchange communication (PEC) icons; incorporate activities that provide strong sensory input to help individuals remain in a regulated, attentive state; and create activities that addressed the needs of the individuals of the group, including helping to upgrade or downgrade them to provide a just-right challenge for each student. To my surprise, I found the various drama club exercises could address many skills.

Important areas of need for many students on my caseload, which consists mostly of adolescents on the autism spectrum, are social interaction and emotional regulation.1 Many researchers in the field of autism stress the ineffectiveness of weekly therapy sessions addressing social skills without opportunities to practice socialization in natural situations.2 Drama-club activities offer natural opportunities to provide social modeling and help students consider how to behave appropriately in certain life situations, as many of the exercises provide a scenario for each actor to react to, often with a discussion to follow. Natural and spontaneous socialization often occurs without intervening from staff. This is more desirable than prompting, such as, "Shake hands with your friend," or, "Now, look at him and say hello."

One student who had significant aggressive behaviors, including hitting peers without obvious cause, would not typically initiate positive interactions with peers but really enjoyed an activity called the "box game." In this game, an empty box is placed in the middle of the circle of all students and staff, and a specific object is proposed to be in the box. Each person, staff and student alike, take turns opening the box and discovering the pre-determined imaginary object inside. When this student opened the box to find a pretend cake, he decided to share it with friends without being given any prompt to do so. On many occasions during this same game, students have reacted to more frightening imaginary items (like snakes or spiders) with great facial expressions and noises causing the rest of the students and staff to giggle hysterically with one another.

Example of an adapted script that uses visual icons and a simple clear format.

The students exhibit markedly fewer behavioral issues during drama club, including acts of aggression, non-compliance and attention-seeking. Because of this, direct care staff does not have to provide as much supervision as with other class activities. I speculate that this is because it is a safe space for them to act a little "wild" and they are able to have more control.

In addition to emotional regulation and social skills, praxis and cognitive skills are addressed as well. Activities like pretending to prepare and eat a favorite food are a great way to work on praxis, as the student has to think through the steps of each task deliberately since they do not have the actual objects in their hands. During another game, actors take an everyday object, pretend it is something completely different and act out how it would be used; this is a great exercise for problem-solving skills. At times, the participants are asked to act out a short, 3-4 step scene with a peer, which addresses sequencing skills and direction following. For other exercises, the activity is less structured and students jump in when they feel like it, which encourages initiation and helps move the students away from always waiting to be prompted to start an activity.

Building self-esteem is also important for these students. Research has found a positive correlation between self-esteem and quality of life in individuals with autism; common reasons for low self-esteem and poor quality of life include a lack of social relationships and limited self-determination.3 As previously discussed, these dramatic-arts activities provide natural socialization opportunities which tend to be very effective.

Staff also frequently ask the students for ideas as to what they think we should pretend to do or be next, giving them the opportunity to feel empowered. Since theater class is less structured than typical classroom activities, they are also often given the chance to choose when they would like to participate in an activity and pick whom they would like to work with. Theoretically, by providing the students opportunities to improve socialization and self-determination, their self-esteem should also improve. Equipped with a newfound self-esteem, they may feel more prepared and ready to participate in all aspects of life.

Simple visual adaptations that show a student where to stand on stage and how to face the audience.

I have observed many instances of carryover of skills that are being developed in drama class, specifically those of self-esteem and socialization. This can be seen in my first example of the student who now repeats the club's self-assuring phrase in his head. Another student who often self-talks about wanting to "leave the earth to get away from all the people" has recently identified himself as an actor when I've worked with him outside of drama club. Many times, when a student passes by a fellow thespian from a different classroom, he will now say, "Hello!" One of the students even independently requested to sit next to a new friend from drama class during lunch on two different occasions. It often seems like the students feel like part of a special, secret club-and isn't that what friendship is all about?

Last week, when I walked into one of my classrooms, one of my students excitedly yelled, "Drama club tomorrow!" A fellow actor who was sitting next to him turned to him and exclaimed "Yeah!" I myself shouted an enthusiastic, "Woohoo!" and gave each of them a high five. I was also excited for tomorrow's class, as it has become one of my favorite parts of the week. As an occupational therapist, I am ecstatic because I know drama club is helping them to feel like they can do anything. Can they do it? Yes they can!

Rachel Thompson-Carver, MS, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist at the Center for Discovery in Harris, NY, where she works with adolescents with developmental disabilities. Her main area of interest is providing this population with enriching and enjoyable arts experiences that maximize participation and elicit natural socialization.


References

1. Autism. (2010). In A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002494/

2. Kransy, L., Ozonoff, S., Provencal, S. & Williams, B. (2003). Social skills interventions for the autism spectrum: Essential ingredients and a model curriculum. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(1), 107-22. doi: 10.1016/S1056-4993(02)00051-2

3. Burgess, A. & Gutstein, S. (2007). Quality of life for people with autism: Raising the standard for evaluating successful outcomes. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 12(2), 80-86. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-3588.2006.00432.x




     

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