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Skipping the laugh track

Photos and video by Ashley Barnas

Winging It workshop uses improv to aid communication in individuals with autism

For two weeks, a group of teenagers and young adults filed into the University of Delaware’s Pearson Hall auditorium for an afternoon workshop.

They clapped. They rhymed. They pretended to be cats with jobs. They talked only using the numbers one through 10. They concocted a story about a lizard who tap danced.

Most of the time, they didn’t know what would happen next. While that might not seem out of the ordinary for anyone who has ever found themselves doing improvisation, it was a challenge for these young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

New situations can be hard to navigate. Accepting that other people have different ideas can be a struggle. But as these young people spent their afternoons making up stories and taking turns acting in nonsensical scenarios, they were encouraged to take risks, let go of mistakes and have fun.

Second-year graduate students from UD’s Communication Sciences and Disorders speech-language pathology program created the workshop — dubbed Winging It — as part of their capstone project for graduation in May. The program is part of UD's College of Health Sciences.

“When we first started this, we did have people say, ‘Are you sure this is going to work? Are these kids going to be capable of doing this?’ ” said Julia King, who worked for more than a year to develop the workshop, including traveling to Indiana to get improv training. “People given the right support and given the opportunity are far more capable than they are led to believe.”

From left, Kelly McGarry, Julia King, Maddy Pruitt and Kathleen Becker, are second-year graduate students in UD’s speech-language pathology program. They spent a year developing Winging It, an improv program for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
From left, Kelly McGarry, Julia King, Maddy Pruitt and Kathleen Becker, are second-year graduate students in UD’s speech-language pathology program. They spent a year developing Winging It, an improv program for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Playing games sounds easy, but it’s a lot harder for someone who struggles with how to respond in social situations, said Kyleigh Curry, a participant who joined Winging It after hearing about it from her autism support teacher.

“The point of this whole thing is to be comfortable with other people,” Curry said. “I‘m not good at talking to people so this was really nice.”

Finding a good idea

King and fellow speech-language pathology student Kathleen Becker got the idea for Winging It while attending a session on improv for individuals with autism at the 2018 Speech-Language-Hearing Association conference in Boston. They heard from Indiana University Professor Jim Ansaldo, who founded Camp Yes And, a summer camp for teens with ASD that uses improv to boost social communication.

King, who has a degree in musical theatre from Temple University, and Becker, who is also part of Healthcare Theatre at UD, quickly sought out classmates Kelly McGarry, who spent 10 years as a dancer, and Maddy Pruitt, who was already planning on a project working with individuals who have autism.

The foursome spent a year making their dream a reality. They drove 12 hours to Kendallville, Indiana, during their spring break to attend Camp Yes And, where they trained with Ansaldo. Once back in Delaware, they worked through logistical hurdles —  identifying which age group to work with, where to hold the workshop and how to recruit participants - all while juggling coursework for their program.

Julia King received her undergraduate degree in musical theatre. She said there is a natural connection with communication sciences.
Julia King received her undergraduate degree in musical theatre. She said there is a natural connection with communication sciences.

It also meant pushing through some fears of their own.

“I always knew I wanted to work with individuals with autism,” Becker said. “I have worked with infants and toddlers. But I used to be a little scared working with high school and college age students because they are my peers. But this has made me fearless in a really good way.”

Autism population

About one in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Verbal and nonverbal cues that seem intuitive for most people often don’t come naturally for those with ASD. It’s common for people with ASD to struggle with communication and in social settings.

“Some are nuances that we don’t even think about. Sarcasm is something that doesn’t really pop out. Somebody with autism may not get those little slight social cues,” McGarry said. “Other aspects of social communication are their ability to express their emotions and really understand the emotions of others. It’s being able to take what’s called theory of mind and what the other person’s perspective is and not necessarily make it their own, but understand that they have a different perspective.”

In developing Winging It, the grad students wanted to focus on activities that encourage communication in multiple ways, such as making eye contact, responding to someone else and even nonverbal cues, like a shrug. While it’s fun to play games, these skills are transferable outside of the workshop, Pruitt said.

A few days in, there were signs some in the group were feeling more comfortable.

“We saw it transferring on our breaks, with eye contact and asking people questions to get more information about themselves,” Pruitt said. “We’ve seen a few participants asking for phone numbers to hang out outside of this, which is really great.”

Conor Grier, 16, said he was nervous on the first day of Winging It, but by the end of the second day he didn’t want the workshop to end.
Conor Grier, 16, said he was nervous on the first day of Winging It, but by the end of the second day he didn’t want the workshop to end.

Skills that transfer

Just before 3 p.m. on a Friday, the nine Winging It participants, ages 16 to 21, dropped their bags and coats and made their way to the Pearson stage. Becker asked the group — which included the participants, first-year grad students in the SLP master’s program and faculty and clinicians from the Communication Sciences and Disorders program — to rate their day. Most of the young people responded with a thumbs up, although midterms had left a few thumbs moving sideways or down.

Over the next three hours, the group took turns being in situations where they were expected to interact with someone else, either verbally or with gestures. In one skit, the instructions were for one participant to call out a TV channel while others act out a television show the viewer could expect to find on that channel.

“AMC!” yelled Courtney Nixon Jr.

Immediately, the group raised their arms and moaned while shuffling their feet — a spot-on imitation of the popular show, The Walking Dead.

“Hallmark channel!” Nixon called out.

The group of four dropped the zombie routine and instead started sobbing, eliciting laughs from those in the audience.

“The main rule of improv is, ‘Yes...and.’ It means taking what someone offers you and accepting it as truth. You’re saying, ‘OK, I accept that and then I’ll add to that,’ ” Becker said.

“This population sometimes makes rules for themselves in their head about the ways they want to do things or the ways it should be done. And they’re learning other people have different rules,” she added. “They’re taking that and adding their own spin on it. So we see all this teamwork that’s starting to happen, not only with us as a group but with them as peers.”

Becker, King, Pruitt and McGarry plan to share their experiences with Winging It, as well as the data collected during the workshop, for their capstone project for their master’s degree in speech language pathology.

Prof. Diane Chugani, faculty advisor for the capstone project, said the Communication Sciences and Disorders program hopes to offer Winging It next year with a new cohort of speech-language pathology students.

“I have been impressed with the persistence of our students in planning and execution, the skill and joy they brought each day and the response of the participants to Winging It,” said Chugani, a professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders program.

The two-week workshop culminated in an improv performance in front of a crowd at Pearson Hall.
The two-week workshop culminated in an improv performance in front of a crowd at Pearson Hall.

Showtime

On the last day of the workshop, the group performed their improv routines for a full audience of proud parents, family and friends. For most of the parents it was the first time they had seen their child perform on the stage.

Curry admitted she was a little nervous about being a part of Winging It. She wasn’t sure whether she’d like the games and she didn’t know if other people would want to get to know her. Her biggest surprise turned out to be just how easily she made new friends, especially Mary Cialkowski and her dog, Cooper.

Sitting next to each other with Cooper at their feet, the pair looked like they’ve known each other for years.

“To try to make more friends who have the kind of problems I have is hard because sometimes I feel like there’s no one who has those problems,” Cialkowski said.

“Then I came here and I was like, ‘Oh there actually is.’ ”

She added, “I’m usually a quiet, kind-of-away-from-people person, so I kind of put myself more out there.”

Without missing a beat, Curry gushed: “I feel that.”

Winging It participant Mary Cialkowski brought her dog, Cooper.
Winging It participant Mary Cialkowski brought her dog, Cooper.

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