JKP Authors Andrew Nelson and Cindy Schneider share Autism-Theatre Techniques with specialists from Hong Kong

By Andrew Nelson, author of Foundation Role Plays for Autism: Role Plays for Working with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Parents, Peers, Teachers, and Other Professionals

Fellow JKP author Cindy Schneider (Acting Antics: A Theatrical Approach to Teaching Social Understanding to Kids and Teens with Asperger Syndrome) and I have been colleagues and friends for over three years now. We met at the Autism Society of America (ASA) Conference in 2008 and immediately began collaborating on national autism-theatre projects along with other specialists from around the world.

Very early on in our friendship and collaboration we identified a mutual interest in training other autism-theatre practitioners in a “summer institute” style workshop. We wanted to offer thorough training in the theories and techniques used by autism-theatre artists and educators, and to give participants hands-on experience applying new skills with actors on the autism spectrum. This summer, in late July, our dream was realized.

One year ago, a mutual friend of ours contacted me about autism-theatre training for a group of autism specialists from Hong Kong. Mandu James YC Cheung and his wife, Dr. Eva Lai, had previously collaborated with Cindy and me on a project called “Actors in Action” at the ASA Conference. Mandu and Eva asked if I could arrange for a group of six autism professionals from the Caritas organization to come study somewhere in the US. I immediately contacted Cindy and plans were soon underway.

Our new friends from Hong Kong arrived on a Friday afternoon and we immediately dove into an intensive autism-theatre training.

For three days Cindy, myself, and our new partner Chris Nealy demonstrated a variety of activities from books and from our work over the years.

One of my favorite theatrical tools is the mask. Masks can be used in a wide variety of ways to teach emotion recognition, body awareness, emotional expression, subtle social cues and postures, etc. This particular set of masks was designed and created for me by my friend Doug Berky, an actor and mask maker from Indiana. In the photo (below) we are conducting a role play and using masks to depict the emotions often seen in bullying situations, and how different outcomes can change the mask from happy to sad, etc.

We also began to help the trainees develop an action plan for when they returned to Hong Kong. The trainees then spent three and a half days in the field observing many of Cindy’s ongoing “Acting Antics” programs in a variety of settings around her home base in Pennsylvania. They were also given the opportunity to work directly with actors on the spectrum, implementing new techniques learned in the previous days’ trainings.

By the end of the seven day intensive, we group of trainers had developed a very lovely friendship with our six new friends from Hong Kong. We laughed together and spent time discussing how the experience was going to be put into action in their communities.

Overall, I believed we learned as much as trainers as they did as trainees. We were especially honoured when the participants presented us with original art created by artists with developmental disabilities in Hong Kong (pictured left).

Cindy, Chris and myself hope to stay in close contact with our friends to learn about their experiences in the months to come. We also hope to be able to offer similar experiences to others with an interest in autism and theatre in the future.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011

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