Whose Line Is It? How Improv Helps Children With Autism

Jan 9, 2017

Shaw, 8, plays an improv game with Erin McTiernan, an Indiana State University doctoral student.
Credit Peter Balonon-Rosen/Indiana Public Broadcasting

Improv theater has a few main rules, such as think quickly and work as a team.

Those lessons have taken improv out of the theater and into corporate trainings and classrooms. 

Now, as Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Peter Balonon-Rosen reports, improv is being used to teach social skills to children who have autism.

For children with autism, socializing can be hard. Because it involves things like taking turns.

"And waiting is very very very hard for people with autism and anxiety," says Jann Graff.

She knows, because two of her sons, including 8 year old Shaw, have autism, attention deficit disorder and anxiety diagnoses.

She says when Shaw was young, it was difficult.

"Man, he screamed every day for 8 hours a day for 6 months, and he’s just awesome," Graff says.

These days he likes to show off.  He spells my name.  “P-E-T-E-AAR.” 

Once a week, Shaw, heads to Indiana State University’s psychology clinic for an autism treatment– improv theater class.

Rachel Magin, an ISU grad student, designed the class for children aged 6 to 9 with high functioning autism. The focus? Communication.

"Through our facial expressions, through the way our body language shows it or just the tone of our voice," Magin says.

Magin is measuring how children interpret these things because, she says, children with autism, aren't able to read those cues as well as others.

Body language, recognizing emotions – that’s a language.  "And they haven’t necessarily learned that language," Magin says.

But improv can be a language immersion program.  The students play with a fairly typical improv game. 

Shaw and classmates pick sentences out of a bright white envelope and randomly choose a card with an emotion on it.

Their task: say that sentence, in that emotion. It’s a child-friendly version of Whose Line Is It Anyway’s “Scene From A Hat.”

Sometimes it’s easy. Teacher Erin McTiernan helps a 6-year old student. "Say, 'It sounds great,’ in a happy voice,” McTiernan says.

“Yay! It sounds great in a happy voice! Yay!” the child responds. “Yay! Yay!”

But the way you say the words changes their meaning. So when emotions don’t obviously line up with the words, it’s more of a challenge.

It’s over!,” says Jake, a 9-year-old.

Now, the others have to guess the emotion.

“Umm, sad,” someone guesses.

“No.”

“Scared.”

“No.”

“Happy.”

“Yes!”

Magin, the teacher, uses it as a teaching moment.

“What would have helped him to show that he was happy?” Magin asks the class.

Silas, Shaw’s sister who doesn’t have autism, demonstrates.  "Yay, it’s over! Yay, it’s over. Yay!" 

“Ok so jumping up and down, having the voice get a little higher ... and a little louder," the teacher says.

And they improvise other situations, such as how to deal with anxiety.

Maybe it’s something we all could use, but for these children it’s especially important.

Shaw portrays someone nervous about going to a new school. “I think it’s going to be scary," he says. “Take deep breaths and you will not be scared.”

The idea is pretty straightforward. Get children to act out different situations, think about their emotions, and they’ll be better at doing it when they need to because of they can draw on improv.

Jim Ansaldo is a research scholar at Indiana University, and also runs an improve summer camp for teens who have autism.

"It’s being recognized as kind of a technology for human connection and communication," says

He says improv-specific programs for children with autism are rare, but growing.

"What improv really does, is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice where mistakes really don’t matter," Ansaldo says.

Shaw’s mom,Janna Graff, says the change is real. She saw it when the 8-year-old, who, she says, can ramble, introduced himself at a church group.

"When he learned about how to stop and pause and take a moment, he said, 'My name’s Shaw, I’m eight years old,' and then he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person," Graff says. "And realized it was his turn."

It’s this kind of feedback the researchers are using to see how this improv class transfers to real social skills. So far, they’re encouraged by the early results.

For Indiana Public Broadcasting, I’m Peter Balonon-Rosen