Helping Students with Asperger’s Take the Stage
When I started teaching at a high school for students with learning differences, my first goal was to make my communication as clear as possible. I streamlined my presentations, tried to wipe out any sarcasm that could be taken literally, and crafted obnoxiously clear assignment instructions. These tactics proved apt, but little did I know that my most effective communication would involve neither instruction nor planning.
My first semester included a section of drama. Some students arrived with film monologues memorized, but the majority of them sat huddled around the door ready to bolt as soon as class ended. When I tried to alleviate their fear of reading from a script or learning lines by asking them to improvise scenes, even those who came prepared all readied themselves to dash out of the room.
What I learned on stage was that within those parameters they allowed themselves to take risks and explore scenarios with voices and gestures they’d never tried before. As their fear of making a mistake fell away, their confidence on stage, in the classroom, and in the hallways soared.
Though this repellant notion may have branded this new teacher as a villain, I proceeded. But rather than deconstruct episodes of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or ask teams of two to stand up and pretend to be kittens or fence posts, I stepped forward myself. Since I’d already started as a villain, I invented a character of a wannabe-meanie teaching applicant. I can’t remember the name I chose, but I remember stating something like, “I’m just like Professor Snape, but without the cape. And the potions. And the menace. And the respect.” Those who have taught will recognize the silent chasm that formed between me and the students at that moment, one I’d fall right into: either I’d squandered any semblance of credibility left in my title, or I’d sneaked my way into their trust.
A new kind of freedom in improvisation
It proved to be the latter, and, quite unexpectedly, that trust came most strongly from the students with Asperger’s. During each class session, we all got on our feet and improvised scenes. When characters didn’t work, they’d stop the scene to fix it – and to my astonishment the performer was never seen as the problem.
As I prepared for the school year, I learned that students with Asperger’s crave parameters established by rules and schedule. However, what I learned on stage was that within those parameters they allowed themselves to take risks and explore scenarios with voices and gestures they’d never tried before. As their fear of making a mistake fell away, their confidence on stage, in the classroom, and in the hallways soared. Teachers and parents and peers all noticed the new swagger in their stride. One student who’d never spoken above a whisper to any teacher became an advocate for new freshmen, and another became the lead prosecutor for that year’s mock trial. Another student gathered up his new confidence and put it toward trying out for the basketball team. He made it.
One student who’d never spoken above a whisper to any teacher became an advocate for new freshmen, and another became the lead prosecutor for that year’s mock trial.
I had the great fortune of improvising with students for all five years I taught at the school. Each year, we created a sketch comedy show that we performed for their classmates. The students chose black t-shirts and jeans as their costumes, and I proudly wore that costume alongside them.
It was all luck. I asked them to do what at the time seemed impossible and ridiculous, executed teacher folly on the first day, based on a whim. It turns out there is a lot of evidence that shows how improvisation helps students with Asperger’s – all of which I read after I’d started our shows. Sometimes we help others by dint of patience and grit, but sometimes we help them by accident. I’m so glad I fell into that one.