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.