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How does acting help students with autism?

We keep saying, “New study by the CDC!” and this time it truly is the most recent study but if you look at the fine print the data used for this study is from 2008.  So, what does the study say?  It says that one in eighty-eight children who are eight years old have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Let’s just say that together:  One in 88 eight-year-olds are autistic.  And this was actually in 2008, so who knows how many more there are today!


So then we puff out our chest, raise up one finger, and say “These figures are staggering!” as indeed they are.  We can’t ignore the

fact that the number of children with autism is growing.  We have STOPPED saying over our shoulder, “Oh, we just got better at recognizing it.”  No.  We didn’t.  We have more kids with autism than ever before and we are going to have more adults with autism, needing care, needing jobs, needing to feel useful. 


So what does this have to do with Art?  Art can help these children cope with important social and communication skills.  Doctors at Vanderbilt University looked at levels of Cortisol, a primary stress hormone, in kids with autism before, during and after a theatre camp.  In three different studies it was found that acting improved the way kids express themselves, thus lowering their stress levels.  (Don’t you just LOVE studies?)


Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory is addressing this issue head-on.  My daughter is autistic and this inspired me to establish the Acting Academy for Autism:  classes designed specifically to encourage emotional perception through acting exercises.  This is a theatre program for high-functioning young people in grades 3 - 12 with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, advised by teachers who are credentialed in special needs, adults who have autism, student teachers, and theatre training professionals.  The Academy honors the sensibilities of these young people and provides a safe and fun atmosphere in which they can study theatre and present a showcase at the end of each session.  The Academy’s Spring Session ended on May 5, with students presenting some of their acting exercises followed by a group scene compiled from Shakespeare’s plays.


“When I first enrolled my 10 year old son Wyatt in the program, I was worried that he would not be outgoing enough, too easily distracted and unable to fully understand the materials.  Was I wrong!” says Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson who is also the Executive Director of ACT Today! (Autism Care and Treatment Today).  “He is in love with the experience, and just today he was reciting lines from Shakespeare! I feel this is due to the joy that (the teachers) bring to the process of teaching, and the respect and compassion they have for children on the autism spectrum. We plan to stay in this program as long as it is offered!”


“This is no different from any other good acting class,” says Elizabeth Angelini, my daughter and one of the Academy’s founders.  “Students gain abilities to overcome social challenges and self-confidence, while learning the basics of theatre.”  Elizabeth was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was 12 years old, and found studying theatre to be an excellent creative outlet.  Now 31 years old, she has been teaching young people with special needs since 2003, after receiving her degree from Pitzer College and completing Levels I and II Credential as an Education Specialist in Mild/Moderate Disabilities.  (there IS hope!)


When Elizabeth was diagnosed no one even knew what Asperger’s was.  We had no idea that kids with autism could be high-functioning.  Her teachers never called and said, “By the way, your daughter is jumping up and down and flapping her arms on the playground.”  So I guess you could say that we HAVE gotten better at diagnosing it, but the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer believe that this is the reason why there are so many kids on the autism spectrum today.  It’s here and we need to deal with it.


I only teach theatre and can only give you one example of what I know works.  But you can bet the grocery money that there are huge benefits in using music, dance and visual art as therapy for these kids.  So, what do you say?  Maybe we should be thinking about how we can reach out and lend our talents to this brave new world, a world filled with kids who perceive things in extraordinary ways.  Hmm, doesn’t that sound like ARTISTIC? 

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