The Benefits of Drama Therapy for Young People With Autism

Updated on January 3, 2018
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew is a specialist drama teacher with over ten years of experience. He has a teaching degree from Huddersfield University in the UK.

Drama and Therapy

Drama therapy programs can play a crucial role in the development of an autistic young person's self-esteem and social skills. They can provide a fun yet challenging environment in which all kinds of relevant expression is allowed and encouraged.

It is built on four principles:

  • Inclusion
  • Free Expression
  • Non-judgement
  • Interaction

If part of a regime that could include art and music therapy, for example, along with more vocational topics, you're giving your son or daughter the best possible opportunity to grow as a person.

Look out for local opportunities in colleges and community-based art and educational groups. The earlier you start the better.

Please read on for more detailed information.

Preparation Is the Key

Having prior knowledge of the young student is vital before your course begins. Ideally, you will have been introduced to all members of your class at a pre-term informal family visit and at a more formal type of interview. Personal contact is very important. You'll get a close-up sense of just who the person is underneath the autistic traits and habits, and they will remember you even if they cannot tell you directly the next time you meet.

If this is just not possible then arrange for the student (and support worker) to meet you ten or fifteen minutes before the lesson starts. The earlier you can get this information to the support worker or family—and then to the student—the better.

You should never begin a class without knowing specific information about any young adult who is on the autistic spectrum. At the college I work at, we're encouraged to keep the following written information in our teacher's folder:

  • personal support plan.
  • behaviour support plan.
  • individual targets.
  • daily reports and events.

It's good practice to have strategies ready and to be aware of any known 'triggers' that could cause disruptive behaviour. (please see below)

A Simple Start

Autism in young adults often manifests as an impairment in their ability to express themselves in social groups. Many find it difficult to communicate and loosen up, like a lot of teenagers. In certain individuals, there may be a total lack of speech, or hand flapping when stressed, or tantrum-like behavior that is triggered for no apparent reason.

To help you start your class in a confident and clear way, here are some important points to note:

  • Get to know as much about the individuals you'll be teaching beforehand, as mentioned previously so that you're ready should an issue arise.
  • Through experience, I've found it best to start each lesson with a simple introduction at a corner table in the drama hall. I set out some chairs (leaving two spare a little away from the group) making sure the support workers are where they ought to be, then quietly take the register.
  • I find this traditional exercise gives me a chance to focus on each student for a few minutes, so I get an idea about their general wellbeing. And they can hear my voice, which sometimes is the first point of contact.
  • I try to be as friendly as I can whilst creating an atmosphere of learning. I read out names and wait for an answer—'Here!' I'm not too worried at this stage if shyness or tension gets in the way and there are blank looks. I thank them for being on time!

The Right Number of Students In Your Group

In my regular college drama therapy class, which has been running twice weekly for nine years, I've worked with many young adults on the autistic spectrum and watched them gain in confidence through interaction in a small mixed group.

The benefits of having only 5 students (with 3 co-workers) are many but the main advantage is the flexibility—the group is small enough to allow me to work one-to-one with an individual, if need be, but large enough to gain a real sense of social interaction that is crucial for the autistic person.

Simple warm ups.
Simple warm ups. | Source

The Benefits of Walking

When all the names are ticked and everyone has had a chance to listen and look, I make my first move and ask the group to stand up and form a line at one end of the hall. I tell them, "We're going for a walk, from one end to the other. Not too quickly, not too slowly, and in a straight line please if you can!" I then rearrange the support workers, make sure everyone has their own space and lead them off into a gentle walk.

This is the initial warm up and is I find the easiest way to help the individual become part of the group. I walk alongside, sometimes move in front, sometimes stay behind. I am always watching, trying to learn.

This simple exercise allows me to focus in on each student's style and mode of walking. I can see who is paying attention, who is distracted, who is keen. When the walking activities are over I allow a breathing space of say 5 minutes where we reflect and feedback. Then we move into more complex routines that involve the use of motor skills and hand/eye coordination.

Please see below for a list of aims and objectives in connection with this activity.

Aims And Objectives

Aims

  • to take part in group activities relating to drama.
  • to use coordination, communication, movement and expression.
  • where appropriate, to help each other achieve specific targets.

Objectives

  • to walk in various ways with group, at normal speed, then quickly, then slowly, with arms raised, arms swinging, holding hands and so on.
  • to use hands and arms as a group to carry a large blanket - stretched out - from one end of hall to the other, to pick up a giant soft ball and return it to original end.
  • to enable one student with speech to say, for example, 'I can help you with that', and a second student without speech to sign or gesture 'I can help you.'

Inclusion

By starting off with an activity everyone is capable of doing you send a message out that contains the seed of confidence and self reliance. No one is left feeling high and dry and that helps bond the group as a whole.

Inclusion should be your primary goal in the first 3-5 lessons. Allow all students the time and space to express themselves as individuals whilst gradually reinforcing the realistic personal targets you've set them. It's up to you to judge each student's level of achievement and to adjust these targets if necessary. The group should be uppermost in your mind so a good theme for your first scheme of work therefore would be 'Working Together'. Targets could be set around this idea.

Outcomes and Targets

Basic activities at the outset can be followed by more challenging activities which in themselves can lead to an actual 'performance' or role play. But the simple warm ups you initiate are not to be dismissed lightly. Walking and moving as a group for example involves:

  • listening to instructions.
  • following instructions.
  • coordinating eye and limb.
  • spatial awareness.
  • interacting with another person.

These soon begin to knit together to form a firm foundation for more advanced work which you can follow in Further Benefits of Drama Therapy.

A Strategy for Disruptive Behavior

Each one of your students has a unique personality and you should have a varied approach to the individual depending on how well you know them. Over time however I have found there are basic steps to follow should a disruption occur. If one of your autistic students becomes too loud, too physical or just too disruptive you need to act quickly and with authority but stay calm and in control at all times. As a guide for non-harmful behaviour, and assuming there are no known medication issues you should:

  1. Make sure all the students are safe and not in immediate danger.
  2. Request assistance from your class helpers for those who may be upset. If practical, tell the rest of the class to leave the room/space. You should never be alone in a situation that is potentially dangerous, so keep a classroom helper with you.
  3. Keep a reasonable distance from the student who is in distress or unhappy. Gradually move closer.
  4. Talk calmly as you focus on the student's expression. Remember most autistic people find questions like 'Are you alright?' or 'What's wrong?' meaningless so approach with 'Can I help?' 'Can we get you anything?' or even 'Do you need the toilet? A drink? A timeout?' Perhaps they've left behind or lost a favorite object they're attached to. Is there a known trigger?
  5. Move a little closer. If the student is loud suggest that 'We all have quiet time now.' Or perhaps the student's first name would get a better response. Some autistic people relate only to visual signs so have picture cards handy for the student to point at. If they are repeating a word or phrase this often means something has cropped up in their minds (to do with dates or names of people or events) and they need an answer or straightforward reassurances. Be prepared for a moment or two of 'controlled disruption' where the rest of class know that things are under control.
  6. If the student becomes disruptive because of unexpected changes to the timetable, you'll have to reassure them and write down the new alterations so they can see what is to come. This can be a major factor in the mind of an autistic person. Try to keep any changes to an absolute minimum and guard against this in the future. Flag it up for a special meeting with your colleagues.
  7. Should the disruption continue and there's no known trigger suggest firmly but calmly that a timeout would be a good thing. A short walk, a few moments quietly sitting on a chair outside could do the trick.
  8. Get help from a knowledgeable person if none of the above works.
  9. Write down a report and make sure all relevant people get to know about the incident.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Much appreciate the visit and comment prairieprincess. Interesting question you ask re qualifications. Here in the UK we have a strong adult learning sector which encourages vocational and other educators to study further and to specialise in a chosen subject for a two year degree course. This is what I did at a local college, combining work with degree study. Challenging times but a real eye opener!!

      I'm sure in Canada you'll have similar courses and projects and degree courses open to generally qualified teachers?

      I have worked with autistic young adults for many years and am always amazed at how well they take to drama.

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Chef, wow! I have really learned something today. I am a teacher, and am familiar with autism. I also have background teaching Drama, but I did not know about this kind of therapy for austic children. It really makes sense that drama would help austic kids get into their bodies more.

      That is wonderful that you do this work. If you do not mind me asking, what qualifications do you need to get into the field ... Thanks so much for sharing!

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 

      6 years ago from S. Florida

      Thanks Chef-de-jour!

      By the way, I follow Carly on twitter: http://twitter.com/CarlysVoice

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Fascinating story, thank you. Drama is a therapeutical outlet for many on the autistic spectrum - I've witnessed several young adults have their first taste of real friendship and togetherness whilst rehearsing and performing.

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 

      6 years ago from S. Florida

      Thank you for an interesting hub. I heard of a man with Asperger's syndrome so intelligent he was not diagnosed until adulthood, who did drama in college, using it as a way to analyse and better understand the expression of emotion.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thanks for the visit and comment Vinaya. Colleges and learning centres throughout Europe (and the world) continue to give those young people who need support and guidance opportunity for self expression.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal

      Drama therapy has been used in Nepal to raise awareness against social malaise. Thanks for sharing this wonderful topic with the world.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Many thanks for the visit and comment - although autism has its challenging aspects many young adults I teach have exceptional talents - and unusual approaches to everyday subjects and things we take for granted!

    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Very interesting hub. This is a topic I know little about but my brother works with children that have special needs including some that are autistic so this gave me a better understanding of this issue and how he can help them in the classroom. Vored up!

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for the visit and comment Jill. Always good to spread the word and help people become more aware!

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      6 years ago from Philippines

      Very interesting!

      I will tell a friend who is working with autistic children, about your article.

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