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Young, Autistic, Stagestruck........... and EXCLUDED

Posted Apr 19 2010 4:33am
Last week an interesting four week series called Young, Autistic and Stagestruck started on Channel 4. I watched the first episode with great interest.                                                                                                                                                                              

A while ago I wrote a post about Revealing Labels and in it I discussed my experiences, from both sides of the fence, regarding our special children's inclusion in after school activities (especially Stage Training type classes) and the importance of revealing our children's labels to the class Instructors.

There was more I wanted to say then and this programme has now brought my previous unpublished thoughts to the fore and given me a platform from which to speak.

I was going to wait until the series ended and we see the final result but I can kind of guess where it's going, so I'll be presumptuous and write this now.

In my labels post I talked about WiiBoy's tolerated inclusion in a StageSchool that I subsequently decided to remove him from. I felt he wouldn't be able for the next level and I said: "However, looking at his performances in this years and last years pantos, all I can say is..... their loss!! Silly me...I should have known better!"

They did work with him and they never excluded him and  in fairness to them, they even allowed me to be in the wings for Dress Rehearsals. However, they did refuse to take another child specifically because he had Autism, saying something like ...."we already have one child with Autism and we can't take on another one" (even though it was a different class, in a different centre.) As time went on I was worried about WiiBoy's hyperactivity on stage and I knew that the Stage School were running a serious business.  They were preparing children for a career in Stage and Film and had Agents attending their school productions. So, I made the decision to withdraw him.

I guess it's fair to say that I have a certain amount of experience from all sides of this issue.I have a huge amount of personal experience of attending classes and of stage performances, I have experience of teaching Dance to a lot of children and teenagers AND I have a child on the autistic spectrum.

So, like I say I watched last weeks show with avid interest, determined to view it from all angles.

As a choreographer I was struck by the varying care needs and abilities of all the students. For this course the class instructors have  a Care Team at hand to help them with all issues as they arise. They regularly had to call on their intervention. I wondered how these children could be included in a mainstream class. Some Drama/Stage teachers will not accept children with these difficulties into their classes.I have been made aware of other cases where a child has been subtly sidelined by being placed on a never ending waiting list (it never gets to him.) and then a reluctance by others to run a separate class.


Now, on one level, I do understand the difficulty. Inclusion is wonderful and it's one thing if a class is disrupted in Mainstream school, but quite another in an extra curricular activity where the "other " parents are PAYING for the class. Also the Drama or Stage School want to show their students off at end of year shows to parents & their families, and to TV and casting agents etc. After all, this end of year production is their Shop Window. I understand that, I really do. I get it, believe me.

However, If you read any of the mission statements from the Stage schools they all talk about inclusion and self esteem and bonding etc; etc. Does that not apply to the Special needs student then?

Even Glee has their token special need student. As tongue in cheek (and fabulous!) as this programme is, maybe it will make people think. I know they've included a person with a physical disability rather than a behavioural one but the point is being made nonetheless.

I was particularly struck by Ben, Mollie and Claire in last week's Channel 4 programme. Claire has a lovely voice and has a singing teacher. She does have difficulty accepting any well meaning advice, she can't seem to differentiate between helpful advice and out-and-out criticism and that causes difficulty. She has a talent though and it would be nice to see it developed.

Ben has a lot of issues too but by the end of the programme you could see him correctly reading Mollie's emotions and advising her! He also was nearly joining in in the group activity by the end! A huge step for him! I'm hoping, in time, that Mollie will follow as she currently spends a lot of time hiding away from these activities.

But, already you can see the benefits of this group session and the possibilities. I really look forward to seeing their production at the end.

I suppose the question  is, as always
should there be a "special needs stage school/Drama class"


can these students attend a mainstream class? 

Which would they benefit mostly from? Some may indeed benefit more from attending a class with their special needs peers but others may benefit more from attending a mainstream stage school/drama class.

In fact, I believe that the children attending the mainstream stage class can benefit hugely from their inclusion also.

Nothing gave me more pleasure in this year's Panto then to see the special children up onstage dancing and singing to their heart's content.I had the biggest grin on my face for their performances and one child   in particular (apart from WiiBoy!!) stood out for me. It was amazing. You could see their self esteem rise as you watched! The knowing little grins on their faces from a job well done...... and well received by the audience. Priceless!

I'll tell one thing for nothing though........ despite what any visiting Stage School personnel may have thought we, the Panto production Team were very proud of our Shop Window. Very proud indeed.

Allow me to show you more proof of how beneficial inclusion is to all involved in a team activity. You simply must read Kathleen's post on how her wonderful Sammy performed in a recent school basketball game. This is a heart warming story and gives new meaning to the phrase True Grit. It is a story of focus, determination, inclusion AND acceptance. No-one can tell me that the whole team did not benefit from Sammy's inclusion.

And you must also read another favourite blog of mine Tanya at Teen Autism and her recent heartwarming story (guest post on another blog) of her son Nigels' trip to the Theatre with his Drama group!  Another heartwarming story of inclusion and acceptance. Nigel has benefitted hugely from being part of this theatre class..... as have the class benefitted from his inclusion. There's also some good tips in there on how to ensure success for such a Theatre visit.

For most of our special children sport activities holds no interest for them. Like others, WiiBoy is not interested in football, Rugby, G.A.A (Irish football) or Basketball, but he enjoys onstage performances and preparing for them. It is a wonderful outlet for him. He, like the others, was wonderful on the last two Pantos and his Drama teacher reports that he is simply "Biting at the bit" to get his lines out for her for her end of year production! He won't let her down.

Then there are other's, like Claire above, who have a fabulous talent and risk being excluded from Mainstream stage training. What a pity...

To any Stage school /Drama teacher reading this and have so far not included these special children in your class, I do understand. But I want you to have a look at this video

Now, when you have wiped away the tears from your eyes  consider this: What if you had excluded a child like James from your class simply because he has Autism?  I bet his Dance teacher is delighted for him that she gave him the chance that helped him to find his interest , his "thing to be good at" in life. This child is a find and would light up anybody's Shop Window. How many more James' are out there and are being excluded?

Yes, including these special students may mean that you have to make adjustments and facilitate the child and his/her needs. But it can be done. James suffers from stage fright so his dad gets to sit in the front row every time he performs. Just like I needed to be in the wings (and pop backstage numerous times during the shows) for WiiBoy. You can arrange that if needed, right?

As for the classes themselves there are LOTS you can do to facilitate children like James..... and Claire.... and WiiBoy! Work with the parents for starters, they'll tell you what works best and what the triggers for their behaviours are. Here are some ideas that might be helpful
  • Most  classes have older students acting as helpers. Perhaps you could consider positioning a helper close to the ASD child to help them stay on task? Or even bring in an older student specifically for this task.
  • If that's not possible then consider allowing the mum, sibling, tutor etc to attend the class with the child to act as their Aide ...kind of like an SNA.
  • Get details of the childs' needs. Knowing "what's next" in the class would be a huge help to children on the Autistic Spectrum. Provide  details of the class timetable to the parents and they will make a visual schedule for the child.  The helper could then tear off each activity as it's done.

  • Sharing class/show details will assist the parents in preparing Social Stories which will prepare the child for class and onstage performances.
There are lots more things like this that could be done to help, work with the parents as the solutions are individual to each child. The tips in  Tanya's post above can also be adapted and used for preparing the child for class activities.

James' mum said that the dance class was fantastic for him. Within a few months he started reading and writing. Now, that may be completely unrelated but I don't believe so. Dance is a form of self- expression. James had difficulty in interacting with others and, I believe, that dance became a method of not only self expression but of communicating with others. It opened doors within him. James' gift for dancing may have remained undiscovered and doors to other abilities unopened, if his Dance teacher had excluded him.

Can you be instrumental in opening doors for some children??

All I ask of any Stage School/Drama Teachers reading this is to not automatically say No, when you hear the words Autism, Autism spectrum Disorders or Aspergers etc. Just read this post again and work with the parents. Consider all possibilities  first.

I hope this little post of mine raises some awareness and opens up doors that allows self expression, self growth and team bonding for ALL children, special needs or not. Everyone can benefit from a policy of inclusion.

Maybe, in time I'll get to do an update on this post and entitle it
Young, Autistic, Stagestruck........... and INCLUDED.

Thanks for reading.

xx Jazzy
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