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Using Improv To Help Kids With Autism Show And Read Emotion

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism.
Indiana Public Broadcasting
Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student. Shaw is a participant in an improv class at Indiana State University for children with high functioning autism.

It can be difficult to socialize and make friends for many children with autism. Often that's because reading body language and others' emotions doesn't always come easily.

Many of us seem to learn these social skills naturally, but maybe there's also a way to teach them.

The Psychology Lab at Indiana State University is trying to tap into that idea with improvisational theater.

Yes, improv.

Rachel Magin, a doctoral student here, designed a special class for 6- to 9-year-olds with high-functioning autism. The class explores the various ways people communicate. For instance, "through our facial expressions, through the way our body language shows it, or just the tone of our voice," Magin says.

And the overall idea is pretty straightforward: If children improvise different situations, think about their emotions and how they show them, then they'll be able to communicate more clearly in life.

Encountering those social cues can feel like a foreign language, says Magin, "and they haven't necessarily learned that language."

Getting in touch with emotions

These kids are pumped.

From the moment Shaw, who's 8 and has autism, walks into class, he's ready.

He's excited to shake his limbs and yell the warm-up.

Shaw also has anxiety and attention deficit disorder, and when he gets excited, he gets really excited.

Under bright fluorescent lights the kids pick sentences out of an envelope, then at-random, choose a card with an emotion on it.

They then say that sentence, in that emotion.

Think of it as a child-friendly version of the segment "Scene From A Hat" from the TV show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?

And sometimes the kids guess the emotion right away.

But it can get tricky. Especially when the sentences don't express an obvious emotion.

Like: "It's over!," says Jake, who's 9, waiting for the other kids to guess his emotion.

"Umm, sad," someone says.

"No," says Jake.





Rachel Magin knows this is her teachable moment."What would have helped him to show that he was happy?" she asks the class.

Silas – Shaw's 6-year-old sister who doesn't have autism, but comes with her brother – knows. She jumps in place yelling, "Yay! It's over!"

"OK, so jumping up and down, having the voice get a little higher and a little louder," Magin explains.

The kids nod.

Next, they role-play, acting out moments that might cause anxiety, like the first day of school. That can be especially important for children with autism who can experience anxiety more intensely and more frequently than other children.

Evidence of improvement

"What improv really does is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice, where mistakes really don't matter," says Jim Ansaldo, a research scholar at Indiana University.

Ansaldo runs Camp Yes And, an improv summer camp for teens with autism. He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are rare – he knows of about a half dozen – but their number is growing.

He refers to improv as a technology for human connection and communication.

And Janna Graf, Shaw's mom, says she's seen how it has helped her son.

She says he can ramble, but recently she saw him introduce himself at a church group: "He said, 'My name's Shaw, I'm 8-years-old,' and then he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person," Graf says. "He's learning to wait."

It's this kind of feedback that the researchers are using to see how this improv class transfers to real social skills. And so far, they're encouraged by the early results.
Copyright 2017 Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. To see more, visit Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.