Sandra Bruce is the Founder and Executive Director of Autism Improvised, Inc., a nonprofit serving the autism community through the principles of improvisational theater. She was inspired by her grandson, who was diagnosed ASD at age 2, to find a creative, fun way to address the social challenges of autism. Because her grandson had a love for film and theatre, she suspected this area would benefit her grandson. Not coming from a theater background, she did her research, discovered improvisational acting, and was excited to discover how improv seemed to be a perfect modality to address the social challenges and rigid thought patterns of autism. Although there were no similar programs available at that time to serve as a model, Sandy found some talented improv instructors and launched Shenanigans in 2009. As her grandson grew into young adulthood, Sandy recognized his changing needs and additionally developed Code Breakers and Bright Paths, transition programs that address real-life challenges for young adults as they begin their lives as potentially productive and fulfilled members of the greater community.
Before you read this interview, listen to Sandy share her thoughts with other parents and family members about their newly diagnosed children with Autism and how improv has helped kids on the spectrum and other challenges.
Margot So tell me how you got started with this wonderful program?
Sandra My grandson was born in 1995, and he was diagnosed with autism when he was about two and a half. Through a set of circumstances, he and my daughter came to live with my husband and me when he was still a child, so I had a very big part in raising him. As he was getting older, I saw that he loved to act out scenarios and scenes that he’d seen in movies and cartoons. He was, very good at getting everything – the vocalizations, the inflection, the script, the movement, everything. And he enjoyed having people watch and applaud him. He’s a delightful personality; he’s joyful. Today he’s very verbal, although he didn’t talk until he was about four and a half. After an unsuccessful stint in a youth theater, I decided to find something that would nurture that side of him that wanted to perform, and would also address his challenges as an autistic child.
I come from a corporate background and had no familiarity with theater, but I did my research and found improv. When I learned what improv was and the different skills improv addressed, I saw how it dovetailed with everything that James needed: learning to be spontaneous and accept change; listening and responding to others in context; adapting to the unexpected, and so forth. I wanted to try this approach but I couldn’t find any existing models at the time in all of Google land, so I decided to find somebody who could teach improv and try a summer camp. We started with two summer camps, and they took off.
My first instructor was a local improv theater owner, Jstar. He developed the curriculum for our first summer camps – basically, it was all the familiar improv games. All fun. They resonated, so we started teaching afterschool classes. As demand grew to reach out to metro neighborhoods, I started growing my staff and growing our knowledge in relating to our autistic improvisers. We’re community-based. We go where we’re wanted. We have grown with our dedicated teaching staff, some of whom have theater backgrounds, and some who have therapeutic backgrounds, so we learn from each other. We have classes throughout the metro Atlanta area and often embedded in schools and other organizations that serve our autistic population.
Margot And what is the age group in your classes?
Sandra Shenanigans, our founding program, is now youth through adults. Our Code Breakers program is teens and young adults in transition to adulthood, college-bound and headed to the competitive workforce. We’re going to be moving down into a younger population over the summer with one of our summer camps, but our “sweet spot” is the 15-26-year-olds.
We really don’t go younger than mid-elementary. There are so many wonderful therapies available for early intervention to start them on the path toward learning their social behaviors. We come in down the road a bit by addressing social communication and relating – an activity and quite therapeutic, but we are not therapists. Our participants are of an age where they can kind of “get” what we are doing.
Margot Do you work with other challenges besides ASD?
Sandra Yes, and we don’t even require a diagnosis for our groups. Basically, our mission is to work with those on the spectrum who are high-functioning, though I’d rather refer to them as needing low-to-minimal support. (I feel that the term high-functioning is limiting.) However, we welcome anybody who can benefit from greater self-confidence and learn to hold your own when you’re in a conversation. So we deal with shyness, ADHD, learning differences, and a lot of other issues.
When I discovered Dr. Stanley GreenspanI was so excited because he had developed this therapeutic model helping kids with ASD on their own level. We’ve taken the DIR/Floortime model and tweaked it for our own purposes. We use that to influence our approach with our participants. One of my teachers, Jason, works especially with the middle school age group and that is a very difficult stage for them. They’re just entering puberty, and the hormones are starting to course. That’s a very active stage, and he is brilliant with how he works with our actors. Jason is facilitating our upcoming webinars. We go with the flow. The kids, when they’re in school all day long, are told, “Don’t do this. Sit down. Don’t do that”. They come to our class and we give them the freedom to be themselves. We welcome the activity, and we’ll go with it. We’ll have them shake it out and do all kinds of physical things to kind of get the energy out. And then we’ll focus them for a while. And then when they start to lose that energy again, that focus, we get them redirected.
Margot What techniques do you use with the children who have difficulty with impulse control?
Sandra For these particular classes, they meet in a big, carpeted room. There’s no ornamentation, nothing on the walls so nothing to distract them. We pay attention to the environment from a sensory perspective. One technique we’ve used is going back to the old tradition of campfire “sit-upons”. We would just mark places on the floor for each child to sit. And periodically, we would need to bring the energy of the class down and say, “Go to your spot”. And we make a game out of it. See if you can make it a race or something. Just so everybody gets on their own spot. Gets them focused again. Another thing we’ve done to regulate the class when they were running all around is to lay out a stage on the carpet with masking tape. That visual seemed to work. It gave them a boundary. Because before, when they didn’t have any boundary they’d run all over the place. Sometimes just doing something visually like that will help them to stop and get focused.
We learn a lot from our kids. We really do. And I think it helps us be able to understand how to work better with them.
Margot: Do you have any new programs coming up?
Sandra: We’re going to be moving down into a younger population over the summer with the summer camp – the 8 to 11-year-olds. We haven’t done that group in a couple years now, but currently, I have teachers that can work with this age group, and even younger than that. We may try something with the early elementary years.
Our transitions-age programming is really gaining a foothold, so we will be increasing our focus on serving those who are in high school and aging out.
Margot: Where do you hold your classes and how many staff do you have?
Sandra: Because we’re community-based we meet where we’re wanted. We embed a good many of our classes in other organizations. We have been very fortunate to have some very generous churches in our area that have donated space to us. That’s where we’ve had some of our classes now for years and years. If I get a group of people in an area of town that wants us to come in, we do everything we can to make it happen. We do a lot of work with Georgia Vocational Rehab. We work with Georgia Tech’s Excel post-secondary inclusive program. We have worked with schools and recreation departments in several of the metro counties and municipalities.
We’ve done as many as 13 classes a week all around our area. We have our core classes, I call them our legacy classes because they’re the original improv classes we started in 2009 that are still going. One of them is our young adults class. The other one is our tweens class.
I have a great staff of employees and contractors who are passionate about our mission and love working with our actors. Most have been with us for years.
On my core team, I have five people. And they’re my go-to folks. They’re the ones that I am delighted to work with on a regular basis. And I depend on them. They’re the face of our organization because they’re the ones that that are front and center, working with our actors, getting to know the parents and families, interacting with our partnering organizations. They really make the difference. I keep the operational side going, and very rarely I find myself stepping in to do a class on my own. Good thing I’ve paid attention to our talented teachers!
We hold our classes in hosted locations. A lot of the spaces are donated, and some charge a modest rent. I do have a home office, but in reality, my office is wherever I happen to have my phone, my laptop or my iPad.
Margot: Tell me about your grandson today.
Sandra: His name is James. He is 23 years old now, and he’s about 6’4, so he’s a tall guy. And he’s delightful. He graduated from high school and went to several years of transition academy, which is post K12 until he aged out of school. Now he’s going to a vocational and community skills program, with the plan that he will find meaningful employment. He’s a joy to us. He’s a cheerful young man, and very easygoing. He loves to do his chores around the house, makes his bed every morning. I’ll say, “James, time to take out the garbage.” “Aww-RIGHT!!” And he’ll go collect the garbage and take it out. (Laughing) My own kids weren’t quite that enthusiastic when they were growing up.
Margot: Does James still come to your classes?
He still occasionally participates in our classes. He’s been doing this for years and years. His class meets Saturday mornings and sometimes he’d rather sleep in now. But he is still part of our program, definitely. He will accompany me to occasional resource fairs and help me man a vendor table. I call him my Ambassador because he likes to work the crowd. Usually, he brings a puppet that his mother made for him that resembles a cat that he grew up with that he just loved. The cat passed on, but he has this puppet.
Margot: So can you tell me some of the ways improv has helped James as you’ve observed him over the years and what benefits he got from improv and continues to get?
Sandra: Well, improv builds self-confidence. He lost his speech when he was about two years old, and he didn’t start talking again until he was about four and a half. He had echolalia. If he wasn’t repeating what somebody was saying, then he was screaming because he couldn’t get his own words out. Interestingly, he recalls in vivid detail those nonverbal years as though he was verbal. That just illustrates that the mind is still going and growing, even if the words don’t come out.
Now he’s very verbal and we’ve been able to channel that and bring out his sense of humor, for one thing. So when he’s doing a scene, I hear a side of him that I don’t normally hear in every day life because his mind’s working and getting into the scene and getting creative.
He’s improved his spontaneity and his creativity. Improv has definitely increased his self-confidence in a group. He’s made friends. That’s a big thing. A lot of these young adults in our classes have pretty much grown up together and that’s a very important component of our program: the socialization aspect and friendships.
Margot: One of the things we observe is often a flat affect and inability to recognize emotions, their own and others. How do you work with these challenges?
Sandra: We definitely work with them in being able to recognize emotions. For a lot of them, it’s difficult to portray the emotion themselves. They experience the emotions like we all do, and in some cases, I’m convinced they experience hyper emotions. But, like you said, they may have a very flat affect. My grandson James is like that. However, he can also be very exuberant and very empathetic, and he can show that too.
We do emotional recognition games with our actors and have them portray different emotions. One game we play works well with the tweens, especially. The scene is: our actors go shopping in a store and our teacher plays the checkout guy. Before each actor goes into the store, he or she draws a slip of paper with an emotion written on it. Without saying anything to reveal the emotion, the actor has to go through the store shopping and then check out, all while portraying that emotion. Our teacher, the check out guy, has to guess the emotion by incorporating his observation into the scene. It could be angry or silly or any emotion.
Margot Why did you decide to host a Webinar?
Sandra Over the years, we’ve gotten calls from people all over the world. I guess we come up high in the search engines. People are interested, and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing our experiences because a lot of people didn’t know about using improv and autism. We were a pioneer using it back in 2009.
I’ve talked to a lot of great people who are very interested in what we’re doing. So I decided that it was time to start taking what we’re doing and taking the lessons that we learn and putting it in some kind of a training format so that other people could get into our mind
We just completed our first webinar series, “The Intersection of Autism & Improv”. I am pleased with this first series, overall. We had an audience representing all areas around the country. Our first webinar focused on defining autism from the clinical perspective and kind of debunking some myths of autism. The second one was looking at autism from a practical standpoint from what we observe and experience in real life, beyond the textbook definition. Our third introduced the therapeutic model of DIR/Floortime (Dr. Stanley Greenspan). We unknowingly were using our version of this model for some years before I discovered Dr. Greenspan’s work. I was thrilled that we were on the right track with our approach, and that we could put a name to our type of interactions with our actors. Our final webinar tied it all together with a big bow. The improv, the autism, and how we work it all together. This will be the foundation of what we hope will be an ongoing training series. It’s for parents, teachers, para-professionals, therapists, agencies, employers, anybody who wants to learn about autism and how to relate to somebody with autism. Whether you’re going to teach a class or not, just knowing some improv techniques will draw out the person and that can be very beneficial.
Interviewer: If people can’t attend the webinars, is there some way they can get the material?
Sandra: We’re going to take what we’ve learned from doing this webinar series and we’re going to re-package it into an even more value-packed offering.
So if they missed us this first time, just go to our website autismimprovised.org, get on our mailing list, and stay tuned because something will be coming down the road.
Margot: Could you share your thoughts to the parents who have kids with autism and how you’ve seen improv help them?
Sandra: First of all I would say to parents of newly diagnosed children that your child is still the same lovely child you had and loved and treasured before the diagnosis as he or she is after the diagnosis. All that diagnosis does is open up the possibility of services for your child. So just keep continuing to love that child. Go with your gut instinct as a good parent.
The child will blossom. We have been so fortunate to see children come into our program and witness their maturation process. They have just blossomed on their own time frame, not ours. So there’s always hope. Never give up hope. Stay positive. Love your child and that’s about the best advice I can give.
And as far as improv, it’s a lot of fun. These kids are sometimes so busy with different therapies and doctor appointments that they’re social skill grouped out by the time they come to us. We pitch ourselves as a fun activity, a cool activity. And so, they can come join us. Have fun. Make friends. And we, as parents and teachers, know they’re getting a benefit from it. All they know is they’re having a blast. It’s a very dear program to our hearts, coming from my perspective as both a businessperson and a parent.
Our families that come to us love the program, too. And the kids, of course, just absolutely want to be there every week.
For more information about Autism Improvised, visit their website at http://autismimprovised.org/index.html, on Facebook at /AutismImprovised, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Margot Escott, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida and is an instructor and volunteer with The Naples Players Inclusive Theatre Classes, https://naplesplayers.org/classes-for-people-with-disabilities/with their Director of Education and 30+-year improv player and instructor Craig Price, https://naplesplayers.org/people/craig-price/.
Influenced by Dr. Stanley Greenspan
Over 40 years ago, child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan recognized the importance of meeting children on their level—both developmentally and physically—in order to maximize communicating, interacting, and learning. This meant getting on the floor to engage the child’s attention. Ultimately, Dr. Greenspan developed the Greenspan Floortime Approach to make his techniques, tips, and tools available to parents and those who work with children.