Read the original article in the Telegraaf (in Dutch) here.
For some kids with autism, carrying a conversation or going to school can be a real challenge, but at theater school Inter-Acting a group of twenty teenagers is willing to face the ultimate challenge: going up on stage, improvising, and telling jokes. Co-founder Saskia Maas, also the CEO of comedy collective Boom Chicago, even saw her own son glow up through this special project.
“Are you famous?” The workshop hasn’t even started or one of the participants has already gotten the teacher, Liz, to crack up. “I would like to believe I am, I do have almost a thousand followers on Instagram,” she responds.
But the question the boy asked was a completely serious one. And then what about the theater they are standing in, is that then famous? When the teenagers hear that the Boom Chicago theater has existed for 25 years all their eyes light up.
“Lots of young people watch vloggers and famous YouTubers,” Saskia Maas explains. “That they can become famous themselves, is an idea that is very salient with children with autism. I see it with my son Aidan (15). He has his own YouTube channel, for which he shoots videos about his greatest passion: public transportation.
“He can name all the Dutch train stations off the top of his head. Oh, and also all the voice-actors in animated movies, including their birthday. What can I say, people with autism often know everything there is to know about the topic that interest them. However, life isn’t a script that you can study, sometimes you’ve got to improvise, and that is exactly what we’re teaching them here.”
Saskia Maas started Inter-Acting together with Pim Donkersloot, child development specialist and founder of the ChildCenter foundation. The aim of the program is to teach children with high functioning autism to socialize in a flexible and spontaneous manner with their peers, through fun drama and improvisation exercises.
The new program will start this week, whereby a group of teenagers and students participate in a workshop every Wednesday night. The workshop of today is only a taster of what is to come.
Moment of Fame
“I’m on time!” resonates enthousiastically through the theater. Aidain – who has come all by himself with the tram – hugs his mom and lifts her off the ground. He cannot wait for his moment of fame to begin. “He also participated last year,” says Saskia.
“Since then he has really become quite flexible. He is able to adapt to change much better than before. Language was also a struggle for him, but now he is much better in understanding and processing. He even has a job now at the local grocer, something that was unthinkable before. But, every child here learns something else, considering that autism has many ways of showing itself.”
This is something that you notice immediately when drama teacher Liz starts the first exercise, whereby the kids have to step forward and say their name ‘loudly and proudly’. Some will yell out their name, while others will whisper softly. There are participants who tend to only look at the ground and cover their ears when they get to stressed, while there are others from whom you wouldn’t expect that they have a disorder.
The exercises may seem simple at first, but appearances can fool. Ask your neighbor three questions, and then get on the stage and tell the others what you have learned? A large part of the group knows of three things to say … but about themselves.
You Can’t Go Wrong
Moreover, clapping your hands at exactly the same moment as your neighbor is also quite difficult. Especially when Liz explains that it’s easier if you make eye contact. Some kids get the hang of it right away, while others would rather clap off beat then have to look the other in the eye.
“The great thing about improvisational theatre is that you can’t go wrong,” says Saskia. “They are allowed to be themselves, as long as they’re having fun and feeling safe. If that means sitting on the floor or walking away from the exercise, then that’s okay. And without them realizing it, we push them a bit further each time.”
Acting and Learning
It’s time for some serious acting. Liz asks the group to walk through the space ‘as if it is the hottest day of the year.’ She has not even finished speaking before a pair of shoes flies through the room. “Ho ho, we can keep our clothes on,” she says laughingly. “And now try to walk around as if the floor is covered in honey.”
That, too, is interpreted differently by each child. Some of them pretend their feet are stuck to the ground, two girls quickly climb a chair. Others look around, confused. Pretending to be cold or hot, that they can process, but a floor made of honey? You try imagining it, if you interpret everything super literally…
After and hour, the guys and girls haven’t only had a lot of fun, they have unknowingly also learned a lot. From maintaining eye contact to carrying a conversation and making friends, and from creatively expressing themselves to responding to unexpected situations. And that is not only beneficial to themselves, but also to their parents.
“People often think that there are things that some children will never learn. Such a sad thing, because people with autism have much more to offer than everyone expects of them,” says Saskia. “We think that you should approach a child not as he or she is, but as you would like them to be. If you would like them to be more flexible and social, then you have to stimulate those aspects of who they are. I honestly get goosebumps when I see what these boys and girls accomplish here.”
Let’s not forget that these kids with a disorder are doing things that many adults without a disorder wouldn’t dare to do: acting and cracking jokes on a stage! “The advantage that autism brings them is that they don’t really get stage fright,” Saskia says smilingly. “That is because they’re much more focused on the exercise at hand, than what others are thinking of them: something that, I guess, we could really take to heart ourselves, haha.”