More from my Queen of Fantastical’ness friend, Gretta…
In addition to the weekend run of WONDER land, UNI will play host to the Autism and Arts Education Symposium. College students, teachers, faculty, medical professionals, and artists from dance, music, theatre and the visual arts, under the visionary symposium leadership and coordination of my friend and colleague Kevin Droe, will come to Cedar Falls to exchange insights, ideas, best practices, frustrations and joyful successes.
I am honored to be asked to not only share my production of WONDER land as a conference event, but to present a session that further explores my work. I LOVE talking about my work and sharing it with others. I try to do so by offering ideas, strategies, and considerations. Often this approach frustrates those who come to hear me. What they really want to know is HOW do I teach drama to youth on the autism spectrum, a question that is impossible to fully answer in 60 minutes. It’s like asking a parent of child on the autism spectrum to, in one hour, tell you everything you need to know and do about raising a child with autism.
So when the inevitable question “How do you teach drama to youth with autism,” is asked, this is the answer I share: “You begin by changing your lens.”
Typically this is followed by complete silence and that “deer in headlight” look that signals confusion. So I follow up with this exercise.
I ask the individuals in the room to turn to a partner. I ask them to each extend their right hand towards each other. I ask them to curl their four fingers and to “hook” their four fingers with the fingers of their partner, and then to extend their thumb skyward. (see Image below for illustration).
Then I tell them to get their partner to put their thumb down.
In almost every instance, pairs of participants in my workshop setting will begin to play the game “Thumb Wrestling.” I haven’t told them to do that; I’ve merely set the stage, generated an IMAGE and organized a physical prompt that they ASSOCIATE with thumb wrestling. After they thumb wrestle for a minute or so (winners often “high fiving one another on their victories), we discuss the activity. We talk about their choices, what they did, the strategies they utilized. And then I ask them to reconsider all of it. I ask them to play one more time. And then I remind them that all I asked them to do was that they get their partner to put their thumb down.
And that is when the proverbial light bulb goes off. You can almost hear their collective minds coming to the same AHA…there is another way?!?! And then, just seconds later, all around the room, NEW ways of solving a problem, approaching a challenge, playing a game, and offering a solution abound. Some simply ask their partner to lower their thumb. Some use a playful trick. Others turn their “hooked” hands completely upside down, creating an opportunity for them to BOTH win. It’s the most beautiful thing to watch; pairs of people finding such joy in the discovery of a new approach.
That is what I mean by a new lens.
Teaching and devising and creating for and with youth on the autism spectrum has completely changed my lens as a teacher, as an artist, as a director, and as a PERSON. My vision has grown from 20/20 to something way more “visionary,” something more encompassing, and definitely something more INCLUSIVE.
My old lens suggested that I prepare a lesson or a play or an event for “typical” youth in the “typical fashion” to which I was trained and then to “diversify as needed” for any “atypical” participants. My new lens has reversed that…I start all of my work by placing my spectrum students at the center, and build from there. What I have discovered is that the way I work with Spectrum Students completely works for non-spectrum youth; in fact, the drama and theatre work for BOTH groups is so much better overall. Go figure!
My “old lens” modeled telling stories using words and actions. My new lens urges me to try sharing stories with visual images, clear gestures, and only enough words to bridge them together. Another aha…all groups are more engaged in the stories are share and their dramatizations are much clearer.
My “old lens” generated lessons that largely asked students to tap into their imaginations to create dramatic worlds. My “new lens” teaches students to imagine, and lovingly guides this new found skill into helping them discover the world of drama. And guess what…those dramatic worlds are so much more clear, so much more interesting and so much more alive.
If you have a chance this weekend, come and see WONDER land. Sit in on any of the amazing sessions and keynote presentations that will happen this weekend at the University of Northern Iowa. Live too far away…engage in the symposium virtually, by reading about the exciting work being shared by so many incredible people on the website. Leave your “old lens” at the door, and be prepared to see the world from a whole new perspective.