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Improv Can Help Autistic Children Learn to Express Themselves

Michelle Washmuth
Oct. 26, 2017

Indiana State University uses improvisational theater to help kids with high-functioning autism learn communication, social skills.

Image via Unsplash

Children with autism can struggle with socializing, as they are sometimes unable to express their feelings—or interpret other people’s.

But Indiana State University’s Psychology Lab is using improvisational theater to help children from ages 6 to 9 years old with high-functioning autism learn how to communicate, NPR reports.

The class, which was designed by doctoral student Rachel Magin, uses role-playing and improv techniques to help children learn how people communicate and to communicate themselves.

One exercise has the children choose a card that has an emotion written on it, and another card that has a sentence on it. The children then put the two together, reading the sentence with that emotion —happily, sadly, fearfully, angrily — while the other children in the class to identify which emotion is on display.

The class was first led last fall and had seven sessions of theater and improve games, according to a news release from ISU.

"Role playing with theater games gets you out of your head and trying new things," Magin said in the release. "When we did the social skills group in the fall, we did games that worked specifically on several different social skills — eye contact, assertiveness, listening, how to introduce yourself and deal with anxiety. The kids started doing a lot better as the group progressed, and there were times at the end that I could really start to see things clicking."

And parents saw the changes in their children with the skills they learned in the group, too, according to the release.

ISU’s program is one of several programs that uses improv for children with autism. Jim Ansaldo, of Indiana University, runs "Camp Yes And," which focuses on teaching social skills to teens 13 to 18 years old on the autism spectrum.  Teachers can also learn the improve techniques at the camp to apply in their classrooms.

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