Rachel Garmon has been teaching improv and leading workshops for those along the Autism Spectrum for a number of years and speaks to the ability of improv to build flexibility, read emotion, and build social skills.
Improv- improvising- we do it every day. From every coffee order with a different barista, to meeting someone new, to adjusting if someone we care about is having a bad day.
For those who have Autism - these adjustments are difficult and unexpected.
According to the Autism Society -”an Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)- is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.“ ASD is characterized by difficulty making eye contact, sensory sensitivities, and trouble with executive function (planning).
Through improv, we always look to teach flexibility and connection within a group. In any improv class there is that concept of ‘Group Mind’ (of working together and thinking together) and to do that one needs to be flexible. Flexibility is a huge skill to learn for those along the improv spectrum - that ability to be comfortable when something doesn’t happen as planned or to adjust and try something new can be difficult.
To work this concept of flexibility I utilize the Fail Bow. When teaching any improv classes or workshops one of the first things I set up is the Fail Bow. This is an exercise that when someone feels they have ‘Messed Up’ or ‘Made a Mistake’, they take a bow and say “I failed, Thank You” as we all cheer and applaud.
This is an especially important lesson for those on the Autism Spectrum; to learn with flexibility comes new things and that is okay. For you see, all they did was take a risk and tried something new and unexpected. This helps create a comfortable learning space to try things and learn flexibility
For me as a teacher, I am adjusting to them as much as they are adjusting to the challenges. I am always looking around, checking in, and seeing where we are as a group. Are we able to be flexible with one other person, but in a big group we resort to being rigid? Well in the lesson of storytelling we will work on a challenging group exercise next to build the idea of working within a group.
One student will give an opening sentence, the next student will give an unrelated last line. Now we have to fill in the gap and process whether what we are going to add in is:
Helping the established story or
My own idea I just want to say
We will reflect after each try and let different students be in different roles. We talk through those moments of wanting to say B, but realizing A helps us complete the task of telling a story. They learn that they can ask for help if they aren’t sure what line to add, we reinforce being flexible, as the story may take a different turn and that is OKAY!
Improv teaches the principles of flexibility and a ‘Yes, And’ attitude [Yes, meaning you accept an idea; And you add onto it] and both are important social skills for anyone. The crossroad of improv and autism is really a wonderful and natural thing.
Developing improv classes to be inclusive for all students and working in class settings for those along the Autism Spectrum has been a learning experience for me as well and each time I learn a bit more about how we are all individuals working to find our way in the world.
Rachel Garmon has been with CSz Richmond for 14 years and has taught improv to adults, children, teenagers alike. Within the past 6 years, her work with improv and autism has grown and she hopes to keep bringing classes and workshops to both students and teachers alike. She developed the first Sensory Friendly improv show that now is a quarterly occurrence at CSZ Richmond. Rachel is the Accessibility Coordinator for CSz Richmond and Yes Balloon www.cszrichmond.com/sensory-friendly. She also freelances helping improv theaters adjust shows to be sensory friendly and adapting workshops.