April 3, 2013

Project Manager Sarah Fox learnt about a fascinating project involving the arts and autism…
At the end of last year, I got to fly in a spaceship for the first time with Purdy the birdy, and meet an alien who gave me some purple moon rock: I was an excellent passenger – holding a strong brace position for take-off and landing!

Okay, okay, so I know I get to do lots of exciting things at People United but flying to the moon with a talking bird isn’t quite manageable – yet (who knows, we’re an ambitious organisation!) Anyway, I had actually entered a world which had been created by the practitioners from the Imagining Autism project and was attending an open evening at the Helen Allison School for Autism to hear all about it.

Imagining Autism is a project based at the University of Kent, drawing from the disciplines of drama and psychology that seeks to remediate the struggles that autistic children have with communication, social interaction and imagination (known as the ‘triad of impairments’)1. Using puppetry, physical performance, lighting, sound, and other digital technologies and set within a participatory performance framework, the practitioners build interactive immersive environments (‘the pod’) that the children can enter, engage with and react to.

At the open evening we heard from Jill, the mother of Kieran, a little boy of 11. Jill told us how, prior to his interaction with the project, Kieran had limited language skills, able to ask for things like ‘cup’ and ‘biscuit’ but little else.  As he spent more time in the pod experiencing the immersive environment (created through lots of testing and evaluating by the practitioners), his mother noticed a tangible difference in his speech and use of language.  Hannah Newman, a practitioner on the project explains:

“Week on week we saw the children becoming more and more confident in themselves, and more trusting in us. They could see that we would play with them and follow their cues. We allowed them the freedom to be creative, and contrary to people’s beliefs about autism, some of the children were very creative with good imaginations.”

The project has now ended at the school but the impact on Kieran is evident. His confidence and language skills have grown enormously, and his imagination seems to have been set free somehow, now creating his own worlds to become the author of his own stories.

There is real sensitivity and compassion to this project and huge amounts of commitment from all members of the team. Dr Nicola Shaughnessy and Dr Melissa Trimmingham (who have autistic children themselves), have been encouraged by the results shown so far (although all the data collected by psychologists from University of Kent will be analysed over the next 6 months). Showing evidence of peer interaction and empathy, it goes some way to demonstrate how the arts have the power to elicit emotional responses, and play a role in developing relationships and building connections.

“If we can prove scientifically that a drama (creative) intervention can benefit children with autism (and others)”, Hannah explains “we open a lot of doors and are able to access groups of people that we may not have been able to before, based on the scientific proof.”

At People United, the tensions between the art and the science, the intuition and the rigour, the order and the chaos, are often talked about.  It seems imperative that we try to evidence what many of us feel we instinctively know about the arts and how it can effect positive change, and it’s good to find other projects testing out their work in similar ways.
Finally, I always ask organisations and practitioners if they have any top tips for arts participation and here are those from the Imagining Autism team:


•    Be polite to everyone and don’t think you have all the answers.
•    Let the work talk for you. We can show all the footage in the world, we can have all   scientific research but one of the key points is real life testimonies. The most effective proof is arguably to hear how someone’s life was impacted directly by your work e.g. Kieran’s mother.
•    With the children, first and foremost meet them where they are at. Don’t try and push the results you want to see on them. Find out what level they are at and then try and develop with them, baby steps if needed. It wasn’t until the final few weeks that we saw some major differences in some children. They had needed that period of time and that many interventions in order to develop.
•    Follow their cues. Give them some authorship over the work.
•    Don’t think each child is the same and will respond in the same way to things.
•    Find a common ground. The easiest way perhaps is through laughter. If you are both able to laugh at something you are able to share something. This can easily lead to a moment of eye contact.
•    Be present. The children knew the shark was a cardboard cut-out but it was the element of “rough and ready” that allowed their imaginations to be ignited. We as performers had to be present. We couldn’t fake that. We had to be in the moment, with the children and pick up on cues that were sometimes ever so slight. They could sense if our minds were elsewhere, as could the other people you were working with.
•    Have fun and make a fool of yourself!

For more information see: http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/education/educational-professionals-in-schools/breaking-down-barriers-to-learning/asperger-syndrome-the-triad-of-impairments.aspx

To find out more about the project, visit http://www.imaginingautism.org/

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