This seems like a novel approach to foster/model socialization. Many children on the spectrum already mimic tv shows and movies; this would be a way for them to learn appropriate language with their peers. The self-confidence they gain is an added bonus. -Ed
As the founding artistic director of Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory’s Acting Academy for Autism, Stephanie Wilson said children have less stress learning social skills in an acting class than they do in a traditional social skills class.
“These kids take a script or an improvisation and look each other in the eye and have a real conversation. That is our goal — they understand each other’s emotions,” said Wilson, of Westlake Village.
One exercise, for instance, prompts youths to say a silly word or phrase.
“But each time they change the emotion: happy, sad, scared, hungry,” Wilson said. “They love this game, and it helps them with body language, facial expression and voice tone. Those are the big three.”
On Monday, the conservatory will present its second acting academy for youths in grades three through 12 with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Nearly 40 children with autism attended Gold Coast classes in the past year, Wilson said.
“Parents say that they weren’t sure about our program until they heard their 10-year-old son running around the house reciting Shakespeare,” Wilson said. The program also received a grant from Thousand Oaks and can offer scholarships to some students.
Classes are taught by Wilson and her daughter, Elizabeth Angelini. Angelini was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was 12 and has been involved in education for almost a decade. Another instructor, Billy Parish, graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Occidental College.
“When I first enrolled my 10-year-old son, Wyatt, in the program, I was worried that he would not be outgoing enough, too easily distracted and unable to fully understand the materials,” said Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson, of Hidden Hills. “Was I wrong. He is in love with the experience, and just today he was reciting lines from Shakespeare. … We plan to stay in this program as long as it is offered.”
Marilyn Binggeli, of Simi Valley, enrolled her 14-year-old son last year.
“David has grown in confidence since joining. He is very disciplined and focused on doing his best,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, but the data comes from 2008 so numbers could be greater now, Wilson said.
“We still don’t even know what causes autism or why it’s growing, but we do know that it is not simply that we are better at identifying it,” Wilson said.
This year’s offering was prompted by last year’s success, Wilson said.
“I am getting more and more calls from parents with adult children with autism who are interested. … We are trying to figure out how to accommodate them in a separate class from the younger kids so that they, too, can have the experience of becoming self-confident and accomplishing something.”
If you go
What: Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory’s Acting Academy for Autism
When: 4-5:15 p.m. Mondays for grades 3 through 7; 5:30-6:45 p.m. Mondays for grades 8 through 12. All classes run Jan. 14 through March 18; no classes Jan. 21 and Feb. 18.
Where: Four Friends Gallery, 1408 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks
Enrollment: Call 427-5314 or email GoldCoastTheatre@gmail.com.