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How kids with autism are learning social skills through the arts

Jun 2, 2016

Taking turns during a conversation with others. Staying on topic during classroom discussions. Expressing themselves and representing their ideas, feelings, and knowledge about the world. Kids naturally learn social skills like these through life experiences.

But for about one in 45 kids in the U.S. with autism spectrum disorder, these skills don't come as easily.

According to the National Autistic Society, while these kids can have extraordinary skills in some areas, they typically experience social impairment in three key areas:

  • social interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example appearing aloof and indifferent to other people);
  • social communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example not fully understanding the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice); and
  • social imagination (difficulty in the development of interpersonal play and imagination, for example having a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively).

But not being able to learn social skills as easily does not mean kids with autism can't learn them at all. Family members can help teach relatives with autism how to socialize. There are also social skills groups, and technology like videos, software, or virtual reality programs.

And with so many of these kids now integrated into traditional school settings, educators are exploring new ways to teach them the rules of social interactions. According to The Atlantic, one strategy is teaching them social skills through the arts.

study from Vanderbilt University compared kids ages seven to 18 with autism, who took a 10-session, 40-hour drama class, to a control group of kids with autism who did not. Participants in the drama class were better able to recognize faces, understand different perspectives, and regulate anxiety. Using brain-imaging technology, researchers found kids who completed the program also had brain-frequency levels that were more similar to kids without autism.

According to The Atlantic:

The improved face memory may be explained in part because the students are directly engaging with peers. Because gathering social information is an integral part of acting, they are forced to focus on those cues and stimuli. They have to learn to be more flexible in their thinking and behavior, especially when asked to improvise. It challenges their concrete thinking style and stretches them.

Similar benefits of drama therapy have been seen by experts at University of Kent in the U.K., as well as by dramatic-arts therapy groups, like MarbleJam Kids in River Edge, New Jersey. The afterschool group provides art, music, and movement therapy to about 120 kids on the autism spectrum.

Anna Villa-Bager started MarbleJam after her daughter with high-functioning autism was not permitted to participate in her public elementary school’s afterschool arts program. She told The Atlantic:

Drama classes are a particularly effective method to teach social skills because they force autistic kids to face another person and respond to others’ feelings in a fun and exciting way. Using role-playing exercises, the class—which is led by trained dramatic-arts therapists and often utilizes peer models—provides kids with a safe place to figure out the right responses to tricky situations that may have happened at school. Kids act out real-world situations in a stress- and judgment-free environment. Improvisation exercises are also useful because so many autistic kids otherwise rely on “scripts” to navigate social situations.

Evidence shows teaching social skills to all students boosts academics. And teaching them to kids with autism gives them the tools to be successful in the public-school system, and allows them to interact more productively with their classmates.

You can check out a list of top autism centers in southeast Michigan - some of which offer arts programs - from MetroParent here.

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