It is one of my favorite months of the year: National Autism Awareness Month. This is an important time to not only to celebrate autism, but also to find the gaps in services we provide to people on the spectrum and reflect on where we can improve.
One of the best jobs I’ve ever had was serving as a teaching artist for acting and dance classes for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the Rose Theater. In addition to providing a socialization space, we taught basic acting principles, such as the importance of speaking loudly and clearly. We used our three actor’s tools — voice, body, and imagination — to delve into the art of storytelling.
The transformations were exceptional. Jacob, a sweet 7-year-old with an affinity for all things aeronautical, was too shy to say his name at our first class. At our final showcase, he bounded across the main stage in front of an audience and proclaimed “Why yes, I am an actor!”
Ashley, a 5th grader with a penchant for drawing, was so irked by the noisy air conditioner in our classroom that she couldn’t focus on acting exercises. We paused our planned activities and as a class, improvised a scene in which we were warriors slaying the air-conditioner dragon. Soon, this sensory trigger became something conquerable and in turn, less distracting. At our next class, Ashley proudly reported, “I slayed the air-conditioner dragon in my school too. It’s not so bad any more and I got my work done before the bell.”
Anthony did not communicate verbally, but was a fantastic dancer with a brilliant smile. He led class dance parties and dreamed up gorgeous movements to depict joy, jealousy, fear, surprise and other emotions. When we followed his movements, we reinforced the notion that our bodies are just as capable of self-expression as our voices.
Andrew mostly kept to himself, until he found out that his classmate Mark also loved the color green. When Andrew’s mom picked him up from class, she witnessed him playing an acting game with Mark. With tears in her eyes she asked, “Is it alright if we stay in the lobby just a little while longer? This is the first friend I’ve ever seen him make.”
Morgan Williams first got involved at the Rose through ASD classes. I vividly recall a young Morgan bouncing in her seat, eagerly volunteering to lead the class in a warm-up or delve into scene work. Now 17, she is a playwright, an actress and an artist. She is highly articulate, animated, discerning, affable and witty. Like me, she’s obsessed with black nail polish and theater, and she has a fondness for the Brontë sisters. She also happens to have Asperger syndrome. In recent e-mail correspondences, Morgan told me what it feels like to be her.
“To describe what Aspergers feels like is to describe what water tastes like. Having Aspergers kind of feels like having the cognitive ability to think — like, you don’t feel it being inside your head, you know? I suppose that I think differently than other people. Well, I think in thoughts. Though everybody thinks in thoughts. I tend to be literal, though sometimes I guess I see that as a way of living life or my sense of humour. I’ve got a one-track mind. I can narrow in to focus on one thing, and when I’m doing that thing I excel at it. I love routine, and I cannot stand when something is switched on me at the last minute. I’ve never liked surprises and I remember saying “I hate surprises” clear back when I was three years old. Speaking of that, I’ve got a vivid memory. I remember things very, very strongly when they’re connected with an emotion. I’ve always thrived on emotion. I thrive on feeling. I’ve always had a strong imagination, too. Granted, I haven’t described what it’s like to have Aspergers in general. I’ve described what it’s like to be myself. And I think that’s what sums it up. I don’t think of Aspergers as being me, I think of it as something that’s just there. It’s part of me, and part of who I am — it’s like all the tissues and organs and cells that my body is made up of. I wouldn’t be me without it, but it’s something that I go on my life living without fretting about.”
Since that first class, Morgan dived into other classes and camps offered at the theater and even played Lamb in a recent production of Charlotte’s Web. She’s a magnetic performer; I had a hard time focusing on the other equally charming animals when Morgan was on stage. She is heavily involved with the Teens ‘N’ Theater program and is currently a playwright and director for the Young Playwright’s Festival at the Rose as well as playing Blossom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her resume is robust to say the least.
Of the community at the Rose she says, “The theater’s like a home away from home for me, minus the toiletries and bedding. At this point I probably know some of the staff members better than my own sister, and generally speaking the people that I have worked with are kind, courteous, encouraging, all-around-nice and great role models.”
Theater can help people on the autism spectrum, and those people can make theater better.
Theater assists people on the autism spectrum to gain confidence, build relationships, and master self expression. Autism assists theater in even more ways. For example, each teaching artist saw the benefit of providing a schedule to the ASD class because students love predictability and it helped keep everyone on track. Soon, it became standard practice to write the class schedule on a whiteboard in each classroom, not just our spectrum classes. The social story we used for sensory-friendly shows is beneficial to any patron that wants a preview of what they can expect from their theater visit. What is good for autism is good for the community.
Acting and dance classes that welcome and provide adaptations for people of all abilities as well as sensory-friendly performances (also known as relaxed performances) are increasingly common practices in theaters across the nation, but I believe we should take it a step further. Arts organizations — especially theaters — are primed to lead in employing neurodiverse individuals, particularly those on the autism spectrum.
Those on the spectrum often face tough employment prospects after high school. When comparing employment rates of people with ASD to people living with other other disAbilities, data showed that young adults on the spectrum experience the highest rate of unemployment. Autism advocacy groups estimate that the unemployment rate for people with ASD is between 60 and 70 percent. Arts organizations have the potential — and the responsibility — to do everything we can to reduce that number.
The diagnostic characteristics and definitions of autism are wide and varied, but my favorite definition is that autism is simply a different way of seeing the world. Dr. Stephen Shore has an all-encompassing adage: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That being said, those on the spectrum tend to exhibit several characteristics that make them excellent employees. They are thoughtful, organized, punctual, sensitive, caring, pragmatic, structured, imaginative, and have a keen eye for detail. People on the autism spectrum are an asset. Creating employment opportunities for them wouldn’t be an act of charity, it would just be a smart move.
At the present, merely accommodating people with disAbilities is no longer an option. Society has an obligation to go beyond that, and to actively recruit neurodiverse individuals by providing a welcoming, adaptable, and accommodating space for them. What is good for the neurodiverse individual on your staff is good for everyone. For instance, planning a company events calendar several months in advance will not only help a person on the spectrum predict their workflow, but it will also benefit the dad who wants to coordinate the carpool for his daughter’s soccer practice.
Morgan put it best: “It’s important for organizations — especially arts organizations — to hire creative people. There are excessively talented, neurodiverse people out there, and if an organization is going to overlook a person because of some diagnosis, they’re missing out on potential. They’re missing out on opportunity. They’re missing out on the work ethic and the ideas and the different way of thinking that can bring a new perspective into their projects, and they’re missing out on talent.”
My dream is for Jacob to walk (if not bound) through an office and proudly proclaim, “Why yes, I am valued. I am needed.” I want Ashley to slay grant proposal dragons. I want Anthony to teach his co-workers that there are many ways to communicate beyond verbal speech. I want Andrew to grab a bite to eat after work with his co-workers. I want Morgan to be the artistic director or playwright in residence or actress or teaching artist at a theater as magnificent as the Rose.
It’s possible. All we need to do is use our actor tools — voice, body, and imagination — to make it a reality.
Most names have been changed because superheroes deserve to keep their identities secret.
Shelby Seier is the Outreach Coordinator at SA2020, a nonprofit organization in San Antonio that engages the community in data-driven solutions. In this piece, she speaks of her work at the Rose Theater in Omaha, Nebraska.