How Drama Therapy Can Help People With Autism

children on stage drama therapy

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Drama therapy is a time-tested approach to helping people with a variety of challenges to improve their ability to interact successfully with others. It involves using theatrical exercises—improvisation, scene acting, physical acting, etc.—to strengthen social communication skills. For some verbal people with autism, it can be both fun and effective.

Building on Strengths

People with autism are often verbal, but lack the skills to speak and interact socially. Sometimes, language skills are echolalic—that is, people with autism repeat others' words verbatim. Some parents have noted that their children with autism can actually recite big chunks of dialogue from TV shows and movies, with precisely the same accent and intonation as the original.

Drama therapy offers the opportunity for verbal individuals with autism to build on their imitative strengths by actually learning, practicing and perfecting "lines" in a fun, supportive setting. It also allows participants to work on social improvisation, practice social skills learned in other settings, work on reading and using body language, and develop speaking skills. Even better, it offers participants the opportunity to actually become actors, star in a show, build confidence, and earn sincere applause.

How Drama Therapy Helps

Cindy Schneider is a pioneer in the field of drama therapy for people with autism, and author of the book Acting Antics: A Theatrical Approach to Teaching Social Understanding to Kids and Teens with Asperger Syndrome. Her classes in theater and movement are offered to kids and adults of all ages, and with a fairly wide range of diagnoses including autism spectrum disorder, social communication disorder, ADHD, etc. According to Cindy, participants may gain:

  1. self-confidence not only in performing but in interactions
  2. improved self-esteem; pride in their accomplishments
  3. improved recognition of emotions in others
  4. improved identification and labeling of own emotions
  5. new leisure time activity in a group where they can be successful
  6. new awareness of volume levels and beginning modulation of level
  7. new skills for functioning as part of a group
  8. new skills for following directions
  9. improved ability to interact with peers
  10. increased self-confidence through success

It's not easy to find a drama therapist specializing in autism since the field is so new. At present, there are only a few formal drama therapy groups serving individuals with autism.

The good news, though, is those typical drama instructors have a great deal of what it takes to work with children on the autism spectrum. Many of the games, improv activities and exercises that work for typical theater students can be easily modified for learners on the autism spectrum.

Using Drama in the Community

Most forms of art therapy have little to do with art instruction. A child may get a great deal out of music therapy, for example, but never learn how to read music or play an instrument. Drama therapy, however, actually involves autistic individuals in the same types of activities and teaches many of the same skills as a typical drama class. This means that an autistic child or teen who loves drama therapy can easily translate skills into improvisation, movement, body language, and memorization to school or community theater.

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Article Sources

  • Interview with Cindy Schneider, May 2007.

  • Schneider, Cindy. Acting Antics. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing. 2007.