Thursday, December 18, 2008

Theater program provides training for kids with Asperger's

From The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, NY. In the picture, Dorianne Brown coaches one of the students in her theater workshop in Washingtonville.

WASHINGTONVILLE, N.Y. — A theater is a place of fantasy, a temporary getaway from real life. But for Dorianne Brown's students, theater is also a way of getting into real life.

This fall, half a dozen children who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, high-functioning autism or other pervasive developmental disorders met every Saturday morning at Washingtonville High School. Under Brown's direction, they worked on skits, charades, improvisation and other theater activities, all leading up to a show performed before a live audience of parents and siblings.

"They know from the very first day that this is a safe haven," she said. "They can be themselves."

Brown created her theater program, "A Dramatic Approach," to help children on the autism spectrum build social skills and self-esteem. The kids don't realize that's what they're doing, she said. They're just doing theater things and having fun.

"This is a type of 'back door,' or rather 'stage door,' approach to social skills, as the participants are learning to act rather than working on a deficit area," she said.

Brown majored in theater at Northwestern University and worked in video operations for Columbia TriStar Pictures in Manhattan. Her life changed when her son was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age 4. A year later, she went back
to school, getting a master's degree in psychology from Marist College and a graduate certification in autism from SUNY Albany.

"I knew exactly what I wanted to do," she said, "so I tailored my education to spectrum disorders."

Brown realized that many of the exercises used in acting classes could also help children on the autism spectrum, who have difficulty interpreting the nonverbal communication that most people take for granted, such as body language and tone of voice. She created the pilot program for "A Dramatic Approach" five years ago while working at the West Bergen Center for Children and Youth. Two years ago, she brought the program to Orange County.

"I really believe this program is so needed in this community," she said.

One exercise Brown invented for the workshop is an improvisational skit called "I'm From Slovatnia." A student plays the role of a storekeeper, and another plays a customer from the fictional country of Slovatnia, who speaks no English. While speaking "Slovatnian" — gibberish — the "customer" communicates through gestures, and the "storekeeper" deduces what product is wanted. It's entertaining, but it also helps the children learn to use and understand nonverbal cues.

The young actors practice the expressions that accompany different feelings, and so learn to "read" faces. Improvisation teaches them "on-your-feet social thinking," Brown said. Performing in front of an audience — even if it's only relatives — helps them overcome social anxiety.

"It gives them great confidence, as it should," she said. "That assists them going out into the world."

Assisting Brown is her daughter, Megan, who is normal — "neurotypical" — but takes part in workshops alongside the students, doing everything they do and quietly helping and encouraging them as a peer.

"She's a very special 12-year-old," Brown said. "She's had a lot of on-the-job training. There's no doubt that Megan's going into one of the helping professions."

Brown said the theater can be a good environment for people with Asperger's syndrome. "The theater community tends to be very accepting of eccentricities," she said.

"Aspies" are often very meticulous and detail-oriented, so they sometimes find their niche in behind-the-scenes roles such as stage manager, prop master, set designer or lighting technician.

As an autism behavioral and educational consultant for families and schools, Brown helps draw up behavior plans and individualized education program goals, does classroom observation, advocates for children and parents — all the nuts-and-bolts work of special education. But "A Dramatic Approach" is her passion.

"These kids come up with some absolutely golden moments," she said. "I just adore doing this program."