Theater therapy aids autistic kids

Mirror game
Caitlyn Wheeler takes part in an exercise intended to help kids with Asperger's Syndrome feel more comfortable with eye contact.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A girl and two boys sit on a bench in a second-floor classroom above Willmar's Barn Theatre. The teens look shy and bit reluctant when they're asked to sit in a circle and join hands. And a stranger hovering nearby with a microphone doesn't help put anyone at ease.

Most adolescents would be at least uncomfortable holding hands with peers they've only known for a few days. But for these kids sometimes it can be downright terrifying. They've all been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

Nikki Erickson with class
Nikki Bettcher Erickson developed a theater therapy program for kids dealing with a mild form of autism.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Kids with Asperger's don't have problems with language like those with more serious forms of autism. For them the challenges are more social in nature. They have a hard time understanding body language and facial expressions. They tend to avoid physical contact. And they prefer not to make eye contact.

Nikki Bettcher Erickson, the theater director who helped develop this program, puts the kids through acting exercises; some are familiar. During one, a girl and a boy sit face to face, touching finger tips and moving in unison as if facing a mirror image.

The exercise is intended to make them more comfortable with touching and eye contact.

Another challenge for kids with Asperger's is understanding emotion. So Betcher Erickson developed an exercise to help the kids express how they feel and understand how other people are feeling.

"I'll start out at the beginning of a circle and we'll go around in a circle and see how many different levels of sad we can use," she says. "For instance I would start out saying 'I'm sad,' and then the next person has to make it more sad. And then it keeps going up, until the last person in the circle is the most sad."

"And we do the same thing with happy, or angry, or stressed out, or calm. We try to use all these different levels of emotion,"

Nikki Erickson
Nikkie Betcher Erickson developed exercises to help kids with Asperger's Syndrome express how they feel and understand how other people are feeling.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Bettcher Erickson uses these same techniques in local schools when she works with kids with behavioral problems.

Bill Sheehan, a psychiatrist based in the western Minnesota town of Benson, thought the same approach would work for kids with Asperger's. So Sheehan worked with Bettcher Erickson to develop the workshop. He says it's a new approach to therapy.

Theater therapy, as it's called, is already used to help treat depression and addiction. But the two say their program appears to be the only one in the country aimed at kids with autism.

Sheehan says their activities give the teens a chance to practice interacting with peers in a safe atmosphere.

"Gradually as they get their confidence up or they practice these kinds of things, it greatly improves their ability to be able to function in a social world, so that's the goal of this whole approach," Sheehan says.

Serious fun
A Willmar-based theater therapy program helps kids with Asperger's Syndrome practice social skills in a safe atmosphere.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Sheehan says this theater therapy has been embraced by not only parents, but the kids themselves. He considers that an accomplishment, especially because children with Asperger's are often reluctant to take part in therapy sessions.

Proof he says is the enthusiasm of participants like Caitlyn Wheeler, 17, from Atwater. Wheeler hams it up in an acting exercise, while her classmates try to guess what emotion she's acting out.

After the workshop, Wheeler grabs her dad's hand and heads straight to the door, not eager to stick around and talk with a reporter. But her dad encourages her, and in the end she's willing to stay and offer a strikingly mature assessment of the dreams she has for her future.

"More acting, and maybe get my acting degree in theater, see if I could get into a Broadway musical or famous play or whatever," she says.

Whether or not the therapy helps Wheeler's social interaction with other people is yet to be seen. But for now it's given her the confidence to consider spending more time in front of people on stage.

Organizers of the workshop say their next step is to find funding to study and develop hard data on the therapeutic benefits of theater for kids dealing with Asperger's Syndrome. The next workshop is scheduled for September in Willmar.