From guest blogger Sandy Bruce.

When you think of autism, what’s the first picture that comes to mind? “Rainman” — someone off in his own little world, with no eye contact and flat emotions? Well, it may surprise you that many people along the autistic spectrum tend to be very good actors — a trait evolved of necessity.

We take for granted our natural ability to read facial expressions and body language. We can read between the lines when someone is joking around or using metaphors. We know how to carry on back-and-forth conversation and react appropriately in social settings. Autistic brains don’t operate like this. They have to learn these key social skills much as we learn math or memorize a poem — by rote.

So, a lot of autistics become great mimics. They may watch a movie, TV show, or cartoon over and over, even obsessively, until scripts and situations become embedded in their minds. It’s not unusual for an autistic person to retrieve bits of memorized script when they are searching for a response, complete with the same gestures, tone of voice, and inflections of the original character. You may notice that the context is a little out of kilter with the actual conversation, but many autistics become quite proficient at believable communication through mimicry or echoing.

My grandson is on the autistic spectrum, and, in helping to raise him, I have learned much. He is a ham at heart and has always been quite imaginative. (There’s another autism myth-buster!) Going into his teen years, he was rapidly aging out of early intervention programs, and, at this critical time of adolescence, there is not a whole lot available to kids like him who need social outlets and crave a sense of belonging. Think back on your own middle and high school years. Now factor in the communication problems of autism, and you’ve taken what is already a perplexing stage of life and ratcheted it up a bunch of notches.

What is acting? It is about reading and portraying emotions through voice and body language. It is about developing a relationship with fellow actors onstage. It is about interpreting a script and reacting to a situation. These are the same skills we use in our everyday interpersonal interactions. Improv games, I decided, would be perfect as an entertaining way for my grandson to develop these key social skills while allowing him to fit in and identify with a group. If this was good for him, I figured it might benefit a lot of other kids like him, too.

I decided to form a group, Shenanigans!, that would use improv and acting games to help high-functioning teens on the autistic spectrum practice social skills, meet new friends, and, most of all, have fun! I am testing the concept through two 5-day summer workshops, and, if they are the success that I think they will be, I am planning to expand the program. Some months ago, I met a local improv director through my former son-in-law, who is a member of his improv troupe. I decided to approach J* (The Basement Theatre) with my idea. He enthusiastically jumped on board, eager to help develop the program and lead our summer camps.

As I write this, I am eager for the morning, June 1, as we kick off our first session. I’m excited to see this dream come to life, but I’m more excited for the kids who will be having what we hope will be the highlight of their summer over the next five days.

Our second session is June 8-12. There are still a few openings, so if you know someone who might be interested, please pass the word! Shenanigans is on Facebook, and we hope to be planning more classes over the summer and fall, so become a fan and watch for updates.


Sandy Bruce does not have one acting bone in her body, but she’s determined and passionate about this dream, and she’s one heck of an organizer and idea person. With a background in marketing communications, Sandy loves to write, plays at graphic design, and is a passable pianist and visual artist. She is married with two adult children, and lives in East Cobb. For more info on Shenanigans, please e-mail Sandy, call her at (770) 354-5770, or visit Shenanigans on Facebook.

6 Comments on “Improv for autistic teens”

  1. Congratulations on Shenanigan’s Day 1 success! The kids are having fun while learning skills that will make a difference in their adult lives. I’ll bet their parents are thankful you’re taking this leap of faith. You’ve had interest already from around the country — way to go, Sandy!! And big thanks to J* and Val!

  2. Sandy,
    The dream is now a reality! Few people could carry off the concept of Shenanigans summer camp, but with your compassion and business experience you are one who can do it. The kids are the big beneficiaries, however, and as “MiddleSister” says, the difference will be seen in their adult lives.
    Maybe see ya’ll on TV some day!

  3. I have been with Sandy all through this dream from almost the very beginning and I was always very supportive of this idea. Now later on,after seeing the final program of the first SHENANIGAN’S camp, it was so impressive the way the boys ALL participated in the acting out the fun games and improv suggestions in their own way!
    valerie took many pictures on Friday’s program for the parents and families in attendance. All parents were most impressed with their own child participating in the programs …with Sandy’s idea and J*’s leading them with great enthusiasm!…..Now I cannot wait to hear the results of this second camp week with three new members plus three additional sign-on from the previous week.

    1. Hi Kristi,
      Sorry for not responding sooner – just saw your request! I will be happy to post some pics of our camps. I’d also love to have you become a fan of the Shenanigans FB page (link above in bio), so you can watch our progress! (We’re launching a web site shortly, too.)

      Thanks again for giving me a chance to get the word out through Encore Atlanta!


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