Akron Beacon Journal Article - May 22, 2015
Autistic students build social skills, express frustrations through drama program
Published: May 22, 2015 - 07:07 PM 

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

At a recent class at the Center for Applied Drama and Autism, two autistic students as well as a non-autistic classmate expressed through improvised monologues their frustrations with being stereotyped in multiple ways.

Drama educators Wendy Duke and Laura Valendza said the end goal was to create a piece about autism to perform in the community to help dispel misconceptions that some people may have about those with the neurodevelopmental disorder.

Three students were taking part in The Next Stage: Transitioning With Drama class at the Balch Street Theatre in Akron. The purpose of the class, designed to help high-functioning, verbal students with autism transition from middle school to high school or from high school to college or career, is to prepare them for real-life situations that may cause anxiety.

Autism, the third most common developmental disorder in the United States, is the result of a neurodevelopmental condition that affects normal brain function. It is a spectrum disorder that encompasses a range of neurological and developmental conditions. The exact cause is unknown, but it affects 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys) nationwide. Characteristic symptoms in children include impaired social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.

Jordan Euell, 18, who is graduating from Firestone High School and will attend Kent State University in the fall, talked about how revealing that he is autistic sometimes changes people’s perception of who he is.

“When I tell people about my disability it’s just sort of like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just like this inferior person, and I don’t like feeling like that,” he said of other people’s perceptions.

Brandon Meeker, a Miller South student who is not autistic, takes the transitions class and also helps teach the younger students’ Superheroes & Sidekicks to the Rescue! class with Euell and their other classmate, John, who asked that his last name not be used. As each student’s monologue about stereotypes built off of the other’s, Brandon revealed that he has a heart condition that prohibits him from participating in many sports.

“I’ve found that people don’t judge you until they know what you are,” Brandon said.

Autistic student John, an eighth-grader preparing to enter high school who said he was questioning his sexuality, talked about people’s need to label others.

“I got lost in a world of labels,” he said.

That pithy comment led to a dramatic exercise called “Lost in Labels,” where the students took turns labeling the others superficially while the one being labeled reacted with their words and body. The put-downs ranged from “lazy” to “stutterer” to “socially awkward.”

“I could sense that no one liked to be labeled. No one liked it at all but we do it all the time,” Duke said after the exercise.

Co-teacher Valendza talked about how the labels may have started out somewhat amusing but the exercise soon became intense. By creating a dramatic piece about stereotypes, the students could help audiences realize that labels are hurtful, the educator said.

The teachers, who have been working with autistic students through the medium of drama for three years, moved from teaching at Weathervane to Balch Street Theatre in the fall in order to expand their program. Center for Applied Drama and Autism, which operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Center for Applied Theater and Active Culture, received its nonprofit corporation name in April and is on the road to forming a board and getting 501(c)3 status.

Duke, 64, is retiring after 22 years heading the drama program at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts in order to work full time on the Center for Applied Drama and Autism. Valendza, 51, is an actress and an intervention specialist at Miller South who is a member of the National Association for Drama Therapy. They work in conjunction with Duke’s 6-year-old therapy dog, an oversized Shetland sheepdog name Hamlet.

“We’re passionate about theater and we’re passionate about these kids,” Valendza said of her partnership with Duke leading CADA. “I’ve always seen the potential of art to heal and empower.”

Valendza, who is dyslexic, said she has her own daily struggles. And Duke says she doesn’t need a diagnosis to prove that she herself is likely autistic: “No one was testing for Asperger’s [a form of autism] or autism when I was a kid. But the more I work with these kids, the more I identify with them and know I’m unique.”

An autistic student at Miller South seven years ago inspired Duke’s current work with autistic children. Valendza, who began working as an intervention specialist at Miller South six years ago, began working on autistic drama students’ interventions with Duke, brainstorming techniques to help them through drama. The school, which had five autistic students when Valendza started working there, now has two students on the spectrum.

“I had to learn about his behaviors. I had to learn how to work with those behaviors,” Duke said of her first student diagnosed with autism. “You have to learn that behaviors with autism are not under the student’s control, that takes time and practice for a student to develop more socially aware behaviors.”

Valendza said it’s a common misconception that autistic students are purposefully annoying or disruptive. Through applied drama at CADA, students gain an understanding of their behaviors through drama with the help of positive reinforcement and a safe place to explore and practice real-life behaviors in response to social and emotional situations. The teachers use video, especially in the younger class, to document how students’ behaviors are changing over time.

“It’s cool to be silly in drama. And they’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you,” Duke said.

Drama also helps autistic students who may have trouble making eye contact with others. Other common attributes of autistic children may be trouble organizing themselves, speech delays and sensory issues.

Through her work at Miller South, Duke learned that autistic students respond well to the predictable stock characters in commedia dell’arte, the Italian Renaissance form of comedy that was a popular form of outdoor theater. She has created Commedia dell’Akron as a performance wing of CADA, modeled after her commedia dell’arte troupe at Miller South.

Duke also envisions forming the company Theater on the Spectrum, composed of both autistic and “neurotypical” actors who are interested in doing theater with people who have special needs. She and Valendza want to mount plays that deal with misconceptions and stereotypes about those who are different, including titles such as The Glass Menagerie and the Kinks musical Schoolboys in Disgrace.

Euell, who didn’t speak until he was 2, was diagnosed with autism and started getting intervention at that age. The confident young man, who said he used to be shy, said he has worked hard to figure out how he fits “into the whole bigger scene.” Being involved with theater has helped him learn how to communicate with others and feel more confident doing so.

“It’s a whole other world that’s brought out more in me and keeps bringing out more in me,” he said.

CADA’s mission is to identify and help autistic students figure out skills that will help them manage the world. In the process, they also work on an art form that they’re passionate about.

“That’s really what we want for our kids. I don’t want to make them into something they’re not,” Valendza said. “They’re incredibly fascinating individuals and they all have this amazing part of them that is just waiting for the world to see.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 
330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com