Autism: When Theatre Heals
He is all of 11. He is hardly vocal but sings like a seasoned pro. Off stage, he has virtually no eye contact. His interpersonal skills are not much to talk about either – but when on stage, he effortlessly slides into the skin of his character. While his repetitive movements are an impediment in his classroom, he smoothly glides through every rehearsed movement on stage. Meet Victor (as his drama teacher calls him), a gallant little warrior, who is inching towards victory in his war with autism. His only coat of armour –an interventional therapy through theatre.
Victor started out pretty much a classic case of autism–a loner with hardly any eye contact, delayed speech, social impairment, repetitive stimulating movements or ‘stimming’ and extreme sensitivity to noise. However, his extraordinary gift of singing, understanding music and playing the piano would always make him stand out in a crowd. He was hardly making any headway with traditional modes of intervention when his local theatre announced a therapy programme for kids on the autism spectrum. It was an integrative programme for typically developing kids and kids with special needs. No time was wasted in enrolling him.
It has been only a few months and Victor’s eye contact has improved dramatically. Although, the eye-hold still lasts just a few seconds, it sure is a massive improvement from something that never existed before. When rehearsing, Victor gets so involved in his scenes that he forgets about his habitual stimming. There are times when excitement gets the better of his control, but he is gently persuaded by his drama teacher to pay better attention.
He still might be the loner of his drama class, but his teacher ensures that he is interacting with his peers on stage or when rehearsing. He actually looks into their eyes and delivers his dialogues! He may sometimes sound monotonous as though he were reading out of a script, but he is able to deliver in his own way. Certainly a giant leap for a child who had always avoided any form of interaction with anyone other than his parents in the past! His otherwise unpredictable melt-downs too have reduced inside and outside the premises of the theatre. His teacher simply asks him to sing when he has an urge to throw a tantrum, and that calms him down in ten minutes. Wonder what took his regular therapists to figure out such an easy solution!
He always hated spotlight. As a toddler, he hated celebrating his birthday simply because the noise and people around him would overwhelm him. He hated the song ‘Happy Birthday’ because the claps that went with it were way too loud for his hypersensitive ears. Very recently, he perfectly rendered an extended version of the birthday song for an act in front of a huge audience to a standing ovation. His reaction to the noisy clapping was a confused daze – he was clueless about the feat he had achieved. But what is significant here is that he did not cover his ears and run off the stage in a hysterical fit.
While traditional therapies have only helped him take baby steps, theatre therapy is helping him control his gait. So what ‘magic’ does this underappreciated mode of therapy offer to Victor? His answer to why he loves his drama school is a succinct “I get to play”. He probably doesn’t even realize that he is in therapy. Most of the kids on the autism spectrum have a natural bent for music. They naturally have a strong comprehension of quite a few art forms too. Theatres in the West have realized this potential relatively in a bigger way and have optimally woven their therapy programmes around this fact.
India too has opened its doors to the concept. The catch, however, is lack of awareness and media exposure. Commendable Indian initiatives like Velvi Foundation (Madurai) and RASA (Chennai) have been successfully imparting theatre therapy to kids who are wired differently for a few years now. However, the media has not explored the full potential of such revolutionary efforts. In fact, ‘theatre for kids’ itself is so underrepresented in India!
Another constraint is the general awareness about this subject. It is not as far-reaching as it should be. Rarely do parents of differently-abled kids perceive theatre as a source of empowerment for their kids. Or even if they do, they set their expectations too high. Realistically, therapy through theatre will not bring about a drastic metamorphosis of the autistic child. But it is perhaps the strongest teacher/ enforcer of basic survival skills that do not come instinctively to such children – self-management of issues they struggle with and eventually, self-sufficiency.
The realm of entertainment extends beyond the ‘typically-abled’. It probably is the only field that recognizes and embraces everyone’s abilities. The inherent talents of differently-abled children are bottled up and waiting to explode. Therapy through theatre can channelize a smooth flow of these abilities in the right direction. Our earnest attempt on this platform is to spread the awareness about the existence of such programmes in India as much as possible.