Using arts to understand autism, from the inside out

A summer performance camp organized by the Brown-based Miracle Project New England uses the arts to help young people with autism engage, socialize and communicate.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —On a Thursday morning in late June, a young man belted out the lyrics to Neil Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline,” accompanying himself on the piano in a large performance space at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School. Each time he reached the chorus, the kids and young adults seated on the floor and spread around the piano spontaneously joined in, singing: “Good times never seemed so good... So good, so good, so good!”

This was the fourth and final day of performing arts camp, and the 19 campers, aged 7 to 31, were energized despite a full day rehearsing skits and musical numbers with choreography. “Sweet Caroline” came midway through the closing showcase for an audience of the campers’ families and friends. It was just one among many solo or duo performances capping a show in which campers danced, played instruments, told jokes, did jump rope tricks or launched toy racecars down a long stretch of floor.

“Seeing these kids following directions, working as a group, being animated, performing in song, showing their talent — it’s unbelievable!” said Sammi Robertson, whose teenage son, Bailey, participated in the camp.

While mastering so much music and movement — not to mention stage fright — in four days would be challenging for any performing arts novices, the undertaking involved extra layers of difficulty for these young participants in the Miracle Project New England’s camp, all of whom were on the autism spectrum.

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) vary widely, but engaging in social activities, expressing oneself and communicating in typical ways are frequently difficult, said camp co-organizer Barry Prizant, an adjunct professor in Brown’s Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies (TAPS) and a scholar and consultant to persons with ASD. In particular, individuals with autism also may be under-responsive or hypersensitive to sensory information like sounds, smells and movement, he said — nevertheless, the performers at camp were using their bodies, voices, emotions and senses, and doing it all before a sizeable audience.

“So often, we hear from these kids and their parents that they are constantly corrected, told they are wrong,” Prizant said. “They are too often confronted with all they can’t do. Here, we work hard to establish a sense of community that appreciates what they can do, which is very often a difficult thing for kids with autism to find.”

The Miracle Project

“Here” is the Miracle Project New England — an intensive pilot program organized by Brown faculty in partnership with the Miracle Project, which offers theater and expressive arts programs for individuals with autism and other disabilities alongside their neurotypical siblings and peers.

The project’s Los Angeles-based founder, Elaine Hall, is an acting coach and mother of an autistic son. She developed a teaching methodology to help educators and parents make meaningful connections to children with ASD, and her program was the subject of an HBO documentary called “Autism: The Musical.”

“We focus on understanding autism from the inside out,” Hall said. “We practice reverse inclusion, bringing neurotypical people into the autism world, so they get to learn what that world is like and learn how to become better friends. We are not changing or ‘fixing’ anyone.”

Hall’s work resonates with Prizant’s research and writing on autism, in which he discourages using a “deficit checklist approach” in favor “of gaining a deeper understanding of the experience of persons with ASD — how they try to communicate and cope in a world that sometimes feels overwhelming, with the goal of connecting each child with his or her interests, strengths and talents.”

The Miracle Project’s vision also aligns with the Brown-based Artists and Scientists as Partners (ASaP) project, co-founded by Julie Strandberg and Rachel Balaban (both affiliated with TAPS) in 2012. ASaP advocates for research on medical and arts practices for persons with ASD and Parkinson’s disease and explores the impact of dance and music on individuals with those conditions.

Over the last year, Brown’s Prizant, Strandberg and Balaban have worked closely with community partners to bring the Miracle Project’s programming and methodology to children and adults in New England, and plan to offer a comparable 22-week program run by Brown faculty and students during the 2017-18 academic year. With support from the newly established Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Adult Autism Theater and Performing Arts Fund, Brown students and faculty will have the chance to learn Hall's teaching methodology and create additional programs, education and performance experiences for persons with autism.

In addition to expanding the Miracle Project New England to include camps and programs on a regular basis, the group has been consulting with Stephen J. Sheinkopf, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and pediatrics at Brown, to develop methods to measure how training in theater and expressive arts supports social and communication skills, reduces anxiety and builds self-esteem among young people with ASD. In subsequent iterations of the theater arts program, the group aims to look at its impact on participants over time and compared to a control group using data from the Rhode Island Consortium for Autism Research and Treatment.

Autism from the inside out

At this summer’s camp, each day begins with younger students gathered in a small studio so they can settle in slowly. Older students sit in a circle in a large rehearsal room, welcoming each other with a nonverbal gesture, which the entire circle imitates as the group repeats the camper’s name.

Providing this mode of self-introduction helps kids develop a strong sense of who they are — their “I amness,” Prizant said. Campers are not forced to rush during the daily ritual, and as the group mirrors their gesture, each individual can feel seen, acknowledged and accepted.

The goal, Prizant said, is to create positive emotional experiences that contrast with the negative experiences young people with ASD often contend with in public or school settings, given that their behaviors are not always understandable to others.

At the Miracle Project, Hall said, “We honor each individual difference so their whole self is able to come through. Transformation happens because we lessen anxiety.”

If campers need a break from the action, they can retreat to smaller rooms outfitted with beanbag chairs and small toys. And instead of clapping at the end of performances, campers and audience members raise their hands and shake them, offering a form of silent, visual applause because for some with ASD, Prizant said, the noise of clapping can be painful.

And while the showcase is a highlight for the audience, Hall said that for the campers “lunch can be the most exciting part of the day, a time when they share ideas and thoughts. The parents of the older campers say they are making friends, and some have never had friends before.”

Strandberg agreed: “So much of the issue with autism has to do with the lack of community, isolation and being alone. The arts are about community, and through this, young people can build communication, empathy and make friends. When you have that, you can do anything.”

For her part, Hall said, she “is so excited to be associated with ASaP at Brown. It allows us to leave a legacy of this work, and it is wonderful to be around such open-minded, brilliant professors and students. I’ve met student neuroscientists who are tap dancers and they really want to understand autism. In the future, when they are researchers or clinicians, they can use what they’ve learned through this project.”

And they can learn it directly from the participants. After the final day’s showcase, campers pop up to take the microphone and tell the audience and staff what they thought of camp.

“When I first got in on Monday, I was really nervous to get up and do things,” said a young woman named Nicole. “And just look at us now!”

A young man named Adam was equally excited: “Camp was so great. I love everything. I love everybody!”