by Barrett Scroggs
I am currently pursuing my MA in Drama Therapy at Kansas State University. According to the website for the North American Drama Therapy Association, Drama Therapy is defined as “the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals.” The biggest strength of Drama Therapy is the use of embodiment. I have seen the tremendous power of theatre in the way that it can teach social skills to students on the Autism Spectrum through the use of embodiment and role play. Creative Drama classes allow students on the autism spectrum a safe zone for experimentation and rehearsal for life. The students are able to practice important social skills in fun and creative ways. Instead of simply telling a student, “Look me in the eyes” we are able to practice that same social skill in the context of a dramatic scene between C-3P0 and R2-D2 in a Star Wars-themed class. I believe that the teaching of social skills through embodiment is why the arts are important and should be accessible to students of all abilities.
A lot of my work thus far has been working with students on the Autism Spectrum; a path which I began while working at the Omaha Theatre Company for Young People. While teaching an 8-week class on film-making I focussed part of the class on teaching social skills allowing students the opportunity to practice skills such as making eye contact, using a clear voice, and practicing an appropriate distance to stand next to a person when in-conversation. One project that was extremely beneficial involved video-taping scenes that the students were rehearsing. We filmed students acting in short scenes and then allowed the students the chance to watch their scene. By watching the scene on the TV the students were finally able to see what they needed to work on. They were able to see things from a different perspective. This is due to their mirror neurons.
In his book Mirroring People: The science of empathy and how we connect with others, Marco Iacoboni explores mirror neurons, the neurons in the brain that allow us to experience empathy. Iacoboni states that mirror neurons “fire when an individual kicks a soccer ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked, and even just says or hears the word, ‘kick.’” Our mirror neurons fire because we empathetically can connect to performing the same action we are witnessing. Later in his book, Iacoboni states that “labs around the world are accumulating evidence that social deficits, such as those associated with autism, may be due to a primary dysfunction of mirror neurons.” The work I did with film-making was inspired by the work of Lee Chasen. In his book Social Skills, Emotional Growth and Drama Therapy Chasen writes, “The cognitive and behavioral context established when planning and enacting the movies the previous week can now be processed through visual observation and auditory perception, initiating another round of mirror-neuron activity. By watching themselves on video, individuals neurologically imitate and reenact what they perceive on the screen, further rehearsing and strengthening connections to neural centers that assist in generating appropriate and empowered behavioral action and response, established during enactment.”
Watching their scenes on TV acts as another form of rehearsal for the students. Through the embodiment in the film-making the students are able to explore social skills in a deeper way. Students on the Autism Spectrum have a difficult time experiencing empathy due to a dysfunction of their mirror neurons. Through drama, these neural connections are strengthened. The work was embodied, as drama therapy is, and achieved therapeutic goals. I was able to successfully use a fun and engaging drama lesson to support the use of the students’ mirror neurons in order to experience social growth.
Each day for class I had theatrical objectives that I wanted the students to accomplish along with equally-important social skill objectives. These two sets of objectives worked hand-in-hand during the lesson and produced some exciting results for the students. Drama allows the students to practice these social skills through embodiment.