Performing in public can be nerve-racking. For anyone with social anxiety, the task can be borderline traumatic. So it would seem that attempting improv comedy for anyone diagnosed with autism would be impossible.
Improv instructor Jessica Arjet knows otherwise. The Youth programs director for Austin's Hideout Theatre recently set up a program for kids "with a diagnosis on the spectrum somewhere, and seeing the results is simply amazing."
Arjet has introduced a lot of kids and young adults to this seat-of-your-pants style of art. She said she's noticed that kids with Asperger's "do really well," which shouldn't be so surprising: Improv comedy "is a really good way to learn social skills, and a lot of kids who don't do well sitting down quietly in a class do really well with it."
Three years ago, Arjet and Lacy Shawn, Hideout's Building Connections program director and a clinical social worker, launched their ASD (autism spectrum disorder) classes as part of a diverse special needs portfolio. The program is not just about getting a laugh: Arjet said what they try to teach are "the big principles of improv. … You have to be okay with risk. You have to be okay with failing. You have to be really in tune with your partner, with what your partner is thinking. All these things that are challenging for kids on the spectrum." She considers the fluid nature of performance to be more welcoming than standard classroom drill-and-kill teaching. "It's more like gymnastics than mathematics. It's not like you learn it and you have it. You practice and practice and practice."
The program is broken up by age (participants range from 10 to 22) rather than diagnosis, with a constant flood of adult improvisers volunteering to provide one-to-one support. Once in the room, Arjet said, "You set up games. You set it to the level they can do. They do it to the level that they can, and there's no judgment."
That lack of judgment is vital. Arjet recalled one girl who was so worried about getting her performance "wrong" that "she would often spend a lot of time standing behind the curtain, and we just let that be a normalized process." Over time, the student was able to extend the amount of time she spent with the group. Said Arjet: "That extended to her regular life as well."
Now the Hideout team is spreading the word about improv's therapeutic and instructional possibilities. Arjet and Shawn will be at SXSWedu with improviser and Indiana University research scholar Jim Ansaldo, who worked with Shawn to establish his own ADS improv camp, which teaches educators how to integrate the camp's lessons into their own classrooms. Recently, Arjet read an article about a graduate of Ansaldo's program who has established her own program. "I'm like a grandparent," she laughed. Yet the real pride comes from seeing the impact on the lives of the students. She and her team recently filmed a short documentary about how the kids go from being laughed at to laughed with. "That makes me cry every time I watch them," she said.
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