DRAMA THERAPY- A Constructive and Healing Tool for Autism

Let us picture life in a dramatic way. These are the characters – children, parents, teachers, therapists and people living together in a community. Our job is to work through a scene that has a beginning, a middle and an end. You, I and everyone has ideas, but we have no idea how we are going to get to the end. There are many obstacles, but we are going to get there TOGETHER in a CREATIVE way.

We are going to tell our children throughout the scene that, “We are going to give you a chance to breathe, to experience life’s opportunities, to grow, to be heard and to discover what’s possible”. Yet, some of the life’s opportunities are missed by children and young adults in the special needs community because the characters, the place and opportunities in their scene are passing by so quickly and the scenes are flipping by so rapidly that they miss life’s valuable experiences. We may not be able to slow down the pace of the characters and place in the real-life scene, but we can certainly CREATE scenes explicitly for our children in the special needs community where they can experience the many facets of communication at a pace that’s best for them. DRAMA or THEATRE (as it’s called in the west) is one such modality that can create a creative way of teaching and experiencing life’s valuable experiences.

Here is more about DRAMA THERAPY for Autism through none other than Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi, a multi-faceted person of hope who believes in the competence of all children irrespective of their diagnosis/labels. He is a professor, poet, playwright, director, trainer, chairman and course director at Velvi, dedicated to helping children with Autism and other special needs through drama. 

As he puts it, Theatre/Drama for Autism is a conscious and intentional use of drama and drama techniques to address specific issues in Autism. It is not oriented towards performing a script but a process that may lead to a performance. He has worked with several hundreds of Autistic children in India and abroad.

Excerpts from a brief chat:

Sir, please tell us more about how drama therapy that you offer for children on the Autism Spectrum came about and some of it’s benefits and therapeutic value.

I am a poet/playwright and was a Professor of Theatre Arts at Madurai Kamaraj university. I visited London and learnt of Drama therapy through workshops and conferences. Back in Madurai, I started practising Drama therapy with children at schools, prisons with life convicts and with schizophrenia patients at M S Chellamuthu Trust.

One fine morning, I started looking for the special schools and was searching for Drama training for children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) and found no one to be doing it. Then, I started a global search and found a few therapists like Greenspan , Sue Jennings practising. But no one specific to ASD. I began researching and asking for connections with friends. In the meantime, I studied what were called deficits such as eye contact. Most of the children with Autism find it challenging to make eye-contact. I started implementing and using the Indian theatre mask to help develop eye contact. It worked! With nearly 80% of children it worked and I was concerned about the 20% and to help them with eye-contact, I used Face Masks (derived from Kathakali, a major form of classical Indian dance).

As we see in some of your drama therapy video-recordings, the face masks seem to be fun and quite popular with kids and young people. Please tell us more about the face masks.

“Take a look at Youtube videos (Source: Our Better World) to learn more about the theatre-mask and the Face-mask. (Source: Doctor Drama)

What I would like to stress is the bonding that happens while using the facemask. Touch is very essential for bonding”. 

He says, “Masks have shown to improve the confidence of children and they start interacting and bonding more comfortably with each other as masks make them feel more secure. Masks used are very colourful and often depict what children love such as animals, superheroes and other favourite characters.”

An important point Dr. Ram makes is that these masks are not forced on them, they are displayed on the floor. Children are drawn to them naturally and choose the masks. Therefore, an increase in eye contact, attention to task, conversational exchange, use of body language and reciprocal turn taking skills were noted in children which came about naturally, effortlessly and spontaneously. 

What are some of the life skills you intend to teach or demonstrate through drama therapy? 

  • Communication
  • Socialising
  • Independent life skills
  • Empathy
A young man demonstrating empathic action
Image Courtesy: http://www.velvi.org

Drama can be helpful to them in the above key areas.Our course and workshops work on these skills. One may be non-verbal and yet can communicate.

In this video, where you are preparing a group of children for a temple visit, you’ve said it’s not enough to simply explain an event or a process, one has to demonstrate it to have effective results. Kindly explain this and tell us more about some of the common real-life situations you role-play with children and young adults?

Life is all rehearsal and play. Many parents complained that their children could not participate in weddings, birthday parties, funerals and many social occasions. We know children with autism being thrown out of churches, aircrafts. Children with autism have not been prepared for such experiences.

We used Rehearsed Response : before any event prepare them for the event thoroughly. Use videos, music and whatever that helps.

In this video, you can see, we prepared 10 people to visit a temple. We rehearsed what the temple looks like, how to enter, how to stand in the queue and how to have a darshan (getting a sight of the temple deity).

Is there a structured curriculum that parents/caregivers and children enrolled in your programme have to complete or is it designed and timed based on the child’s needs?

It is a highly structured programme which is also time -bound, but it also is flexible.

How is the response of children to the games and creative movement exercises you offer? I reckon they enjoy it all. Are some children reluctant to participate? How do you deal with them?

We don’t force any child to participate. We let the children watch and they are naturally drawn to it. We make it interesting for them to participate and use One on One method and then bring them into a group. This video (Workshop held at Autism Clinic, California State University, USA) demonstrates this practice.

Tell us about some of the life transforming changes and benefits children and youngsters have gained from drama therapy?

We have trained young adults into models, singers, dog-trainers and helped them earn a living. It has helped children and young adults gain independent skills and communication skills.  We identify the particular intelligence of the young man/woman and develop that intelligence and nurture. We identify what profession would match their intelligence and apprentice them with a professional. There are Photographers, Gardeners, dog-trainers, cook. Proud of having visited Dignity Kitchen in Singapore and expect Establishments like that in India.

Kindly tell us about the online drama therapy course you offer. Who is it for?

Drama for Autism Online course is for parents, caregivers, teachers of children with special needs particularly those with ASD. I found that teachers want to learn but they don’t have the means to spend a few months away from work. So me and my friend Andrew Nelson of West Virginia University designed an Online course 10 years ago. We have trained more than 5000 parents and teachers across the 7 continents. It’s a 12 modules course spread over 6 months. Each module has assignments and students work on the assignments and they are graded. At the end of the course, they are given a certificate of Applied Drama in autism. Those interested may write to me at: parasuram.ramamoorthi@gmail.com.

I’m grateful to Dr. Parasuram Ramamoorthi for sharing such valuable information and video resources which is both constructive and healing for children and young adults in the special needs community.

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Anjana Sathyabodha View All →

Namaste visitors! I am a Speech-Language Pathologist with an integrated work approach. I share my own views and work experiences with children and young adults who have received a diagnosis of Autism, Down’s syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and other conditions and disabilities through this blog.

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