Friday, July 16, 2004

Aspergers and Theater

Asperger's Syndrome is usually classified as a kind of high-functioning autism. The person is often quite intelligent, but is unable to understand other people's emotions. Most of us learn as infants how to read other people's faces and tell their emotions, but the AS child seems to use a different part of the brain, and has a lot of trouble piecing out what other people really mean.

Stop and think how much of the meaning of an ordinary conversation is contained in the tone and body language you employ. And how do you decipher this often dreaded exchange?

He: "Is something wrong?"

She: "No, everything is just fine."

Depending on her tone of voice and which way her eyes are looking, this could be a tender moment or the overture to a dish-slinging serenade. Imagine not being able to tell which was about to happen!

Since studies suggest that the AS child uses a different part of the brain (a part related to mathematical skills), you can't teach him to "read people" in quite the same way as you could somebody else. You can already find programs to try to teach you how to recognize and interpret different facial expressions: and books, card games, and computer programs to go with these. I cannot easily evaluate these, except to authoritatively state that they aren't quick solutions. (In fact, the children involved were bored out of their gourds: probably because they couldn't understand the game.)

Even if you train a child to recognize emotions in others, he still faces the problem of communicating his own emotions in socially acceptable ways. In "social stories" the teacher devises a concrete situation based on some incidents the child has encountered, and the teacher and child step through the story deciding what should be the next response and why. (These have proved very useful.) During the course of the lesson the two may work out a number of different protocols: "If the bully says X you can say Y." Of course, the child finds that putting the lessons into practice is harder than talking them out with the teacher.

In an extension of this, the child and teacher spend time acting out the scenes. This is labor-intensive, but seems to be helpful.

Suppose we give the child not just social stories, but more detailed theatrical training. "Stand here. Point your head towards him. Open your eyes wider. Say the last part of that sentence a bit more slowly. When you want somebody to think you are interested in them, don't just look at them, turn your torso to face them."

Some people already use a theatrical model to teach more severely handicapped children their social stories, but this is a little different. I propose that we try to teach them body language and tone as well as their scripts.

An actor has to be intentional about how his body looks and his voice sounds. That is just the ticket for an Asperger's child. And the theater gives you scripts. Unfortunately most of the interesting plays don't have scripts that fit an ordinary day. "Alas, poor Yorick!" I believe we could find a wide enough sample, though, and make sure these are carefully practiced.

The act of shaping your own face to express some emotion ought to help you recognize that same shaping in someone else. (Mirrors help the acting instructor here: the child sees himself and the instructor making faces.) Having the expressions in context helps a lot in remembering their interpretations.

The context of the play lets you show explicitly how meanings change with body language.

At least in theory this sort of training gives the Asberger's child most of what he needs to learn about emoting and recognizing emotions and their contributions to conversation.

So we need

  • Acting instructors who can deal with children, and are very patient. Everything has to be spelled out.
  • Somebody to teach the acting instructors how to deal with Asperger's children. Teaching the teachers will be a big part of the job.
  • Plays that are interesting but still have some ordinary conversation. I don't think writing our own is a great idea, unless we have some hidden Shakespeare handy.
  • Other actors who are not AS children, so the instructors can focus on only the child's part in the play. Perhaps these could be other parents? If so, the parents need some acting instruction too.

There are a few issues that need attention:

  • Most conversation in plays and movies is actually stylized, and not quite like real conversations. Real conversations have a lot of redundancy and subtle breaks to allow turn-taking.
  • How many AS children can a single instructor deal with at a time? (One is obviously best, but very expensive. Maybe several instructors in the same room with several children?)
  • How many AS children can you have on a single set? How wide can the age range be? (This matters a lot for selecting the plays!)
  • By construction, this is not one-on-one training, but two-on-one: the teacher and the other actor(s) together with the child. It is obviously quite labor-intensive.
  • The degree of movement and facial expression suitable for the stage, where you have to convey emotion to the back rows, is not so suitable for ordinary conversation. Is movie acting different from stage acting?
I think it can be done. I don't see any show-stoppers yet.