Shakespeare and Autism

There is a new autism therapy based on the works of Shakespeare called the Hunter Heartbeat Method. The initial results seem extremely promising in improving socialization skills. The theater games all make a great deal of sense to me, at least. Even better, from my perspective, is that theater and, especially Shakespeare, the greatest of all playwrights, is being used to help socialize us. Who better to teach us how to be human all too human?

The Hungry Caterpillar at DCT

The Dallas Children’s Theater sensory shows are a regular outing for the Camplin family. Just yesterday, we attended The Hungry Caterpillar, which was really four different vignettes of Eric Carle’s works, including The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mr. Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and The Hungry Caterpillar, respectively. The y all included giant puppets that required people dressed in white to control them. It was very beautiful and quite delightful overall.

In the first one, there was a series of blank canvasses brought out for the painter to paint on. He would turn the canvas around, pretend to paint, then turn the canvas around to reveal different paintings of different animals–such as the blue horse. After several of these were done, Daniel whispered that he was certain the artist was “bringing down a sheet” to create the painting so fast. Which of course was pretty much what was happening, as each of the canvases could have the top flipped down to the bottom so the blank canvas suddenly had an image on it. Daniel, being hyper-logical, quickly understood there was no way he could have painted the paintings so fast.

Between the first and the second vignette, all sorts of props were brought out. Daniel whispered to me that they were changing scenes because they were bringing new things out on stage.

Daniel loves fish, and he would try to guess what kinds of fish were being brought out before they were identified by the narrator. At the end of the vignette, he whispered to me that it wasn’t going to be a single story, but several short ones–which, of course, it was.

Mostly Daniel commented on technical aspects of the play, which is something he had started to do last time. It’s equally notable that today he had wanted to put on a puppet play (with the firefly finger puppets he and Dylan got at the theater afterwards). Daniel has liked “putting on plays” for us, and those plays are becoming more and more narrative in structure. The last play he put on was a fairly accurate–and narratively structured–1st Thanksgiving play, from the trip across the ocean to the settlement at Plymouth Rock and the Thanksgiving feast with the Native Americans. Overall, not bad for an 8 year old. I would like to think that my being a playwright, poet, and fiction writer has something to do with his interest, but I suspect it’s really DCT.

Coincidentally, tomorrow I will be doing an interview with DCT about our experiences with the sensory program. It’s actually my second interview. I’m sure I’ll share whatever comes of it soon.

Language Arts

Autism is often referred to as a communication disorder, so it would seem odd that I am a poet, fiction writer, and playwright. Especially given our difficulties with metaphor. And yet, I would argue that it’s precisely those difficulties which drew me to the language arts. The way to really figure something out is to do it. Also, it seems that this attitude may run in my family: my brother, who is dyslexic, is a visual artist who primarily does text art (pen and ink, and paintings).

All three of my children are nerds. My sons love Star Wars, and all three have plush germs. Melina has a rhinovirus, Euglena, Streptococcus, and Ameoba. Dylan has a Paramecium, and Daniel has a Salmonella typhii. Daniel loves his Salmonella typhii. Recently, I heard him say while playing:

Salmonella typhii will do the trick

He’s the kind of germ that will make you sick!

That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you make it a habit of going around playing with language, turning everything into a rhyme, and generally playing with language with the kids.

Those who have been reading this blog also know that we take the kids to the Dallas Children’s Theater, particularly for their sensory-friendly shows. Daniel also likes to put on shows, of which he is naturally the director. This prompted the recent questions:

Can small children run a play? How much does it cost to buy a stage?

Being a playwright, I naturally wanted to tell him that daddy has wanted to buy a stage for a long time, and that if he could have, he would have by now. But that gets into issues an 8-year-old doesn’t need to know about.

The real point here, though, is that Daniel’s strong cause-and-effect thinking struck yet again. He jumped from wondering if small children could run a play (to which I answered, “Yes.”) to realizing he would need a stage, which meant he would probably have to buy one. I did have to tell him they were very expensive, because if I didn’t, he would be bugging me every day about when it was I was going to buy him a stage so he could put on plays.

A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Dallas Children’s Theater

Today we attended the sensory-friendly performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Dallas Children’s Theater. We try to go to pretty much every performance (I have written several observations about Daniel’s reactions, particularly about Balloonacy, which garnered two posts), and each time there’s something new with Daniel’s reactions to the play.

In this particular case, Daniel watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on T.V. earlier this week. He really enjoyed it and laughed a lot over Snoopy’s antics. So Daniel actually went into the play knowing the story.

As a result, Daniel ended up making a lot of comments about the technical aspects of the play. He pointed out that they had to practice a lot for them to match up to the televised version so well. He kept asking his mother about how they had to practice so much. He also noticed the projector in the back and noted that it was showing stuff on the screens on the stage.

He did mention that they were on roller blades rather than ice skates because they were pretending to be on ice skates, and that the Christmas trees were wooden rather than real or aluminum trees. But this time he only briefly mentioned these “anomalies” and didn’t harp on them as in times past.

Daniel loves to put on his version of plays. He has a tendency to direct play (a typical feature of autism), so directing A play is right up his alley. His plays have evolved from a series of unconnected scenes to complete stories–in fact, his last play was actually a telling of the trip of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving, told in order and actually making narrative sense. Coincidentally, his play was based on the Peanuts cartoon version of the first Thanksgiving he had seen.

I think that when Daniel noted that the actors had to have practiced a lot for the show to match the cartoon so well, he was thinking about the degree to which his play did not match the Peanuts version. I am guessing this does not bode well for his two actors, his brother, Dylan (5), and his sister, Melina (10). I suspect they will have a great deal more practice ahead of them with the next play Daniel conceives.

Balloonacy and Me in the Chronicle of Higher Education

I have been mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education in a piece on the author of Balloonacy. Scroll down to the second piece, titled Work as Play. They specifically mention my involvement in this video, based on what I had written on this blog about Daniel’s reaction to the play.

It turns out that the playwright, Barry P. Kornhauser, had in fact written the play to reach children who were either deaf or couldn’t speak English–meaning, he had disabilities and language difficulties in mind, even if it wasn’t specifically autism. In fact, in a private email, he admits that though he works with children on the spectrum all the time, it hadn’t occurred to him that the play would be perfect for them. I’m certainly pleased that he was touched by my words, even as Daniel was touched through his play’s lack of them.

Balloonacy — A Play Good for Children with Autism

Several years ago (April 2015) my family went to the Dallas Children’s Theater to watch Balloonacy, a cute mime play about an old man who lives in an apartment by himself and is celebrating his birthday alone, when a balloon comes in through his open window and becomes his friend. The Dallas Children’s Theater has special showings of certain plays for children with sensory issues, and we have been going since their first such show. The sound is not as loud and the lighting contrast between the stage and the seats is not as sharp.

Although this was not our first play we attended at DCT, and although Balloonacy was not specifically written for children on the autism spectrum – it is a pretty standard mime play in the French style with light slapstick – I decided to write a little about this play because of Daniel’s reaction to the play, and because I think that this play is particularly good for children on the spectrum to see.

The story is about an old man who lives alone and is trying to eat a spaghetti dinner he warmed up in the microwave and to celebrate his birthday. A red balloon flies in through the window, and the old man tries to put it out – only to have the balloon return again and again. Finally, he slams the window shut, smashing his thumb – which causes him to put a band-aid on it. The balloon is magical – appearing out of the trash and out of boxes, including a birthday present left at the front door. The old man grows fond of the balloon when it appears out of the birthday present, and he begins interacting with it and playing with it. At one point he is playing with a fork, and he accidentally stabs the balloon. The balloon starts to lose air, and it slowly deflates. He puts the balloon in a box, puts the band-aid from his thumb onto the balloon, and the balloon reappears fully inflated. After more shenanigans, the old man tries to eat his birthday cupcake, and the balloon smashes it into the old man’s face – as the old man wipes off his face after putting the cupcake down on his seat, he sits on the cupcake. He gets angry at the balloon and throws it out the window, but quickly regrets doing so. He tries to show hearts out the window, then draws a big heart on a piece of newspaper, creates a paper airplane out of it, and flies it out the window. The balloon returns, and the balloon and the old man leave together. The play ends with the old man flying into the distant sky, holding the balloon.

One of the main attributes of autism is high orientation toward objects. Autistics are more comfortable interacting with objects than with people. They even relate, in a certain sense, to objects. I have used this knowledge to help socialize Daniel by making the Matchbox cars he’s obsessed with talk to each other. He’s then been able to transfer the emotions from the cars to people to a certain degree. Lately he’s started to demonstrate interest in getting things for his brother and/or sister when we go to the store, rather than just think about getting a car for himself. But he still prefers objects over people.

Balloonacy has two characters in it. The old man, and the balloon. Daniel identified with the balloon. He is also a fan of slapstick comedy (I have read that this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum), but there is little doubt he identified more with the balloon than the man. He was utterly delighted with the balloon and its antics (all children are, but not in the way Daniel does, identifying with the balloon – most children are delighted with the balloon the way the old man is). But then something interesting happened. The balloon popped. And Daniel began to cry. And the old man got upset. And Daniel began to cry a bit more, wiping tears away. Daniel was sad the balloon popped, and then when the old man was also sad, he saw the man feeling the way he did, and empathized with the old man.

While this may seem a normal thing to do – because, for a neurotypical person, it is – for Daniel this is major. Not only did Daniel feel sad for the balloon, which is something that we might in fact expect from him, but Daniel also felt sad that the old man felt sad. The feelings he had for the balloon was transferred to the old man. It was obvious from his body language and the ways he reacted to first the balloon and then the old man reacting to the balloon. Daniel hugged up on me to get some comfort when the old man was visibly upset, and had merely slumped in his seat when the balloon popped.

It seems to me that Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object the autistic children could relate to, and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum need a certain degree of empathy development. This play is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of transference and the redirection of the autistic child toward human emotional responses and interactions.

Goosebumps at the Dallas Children’s Theater

We love attending the sensory-friendly performances at Dallas Children’s Theater. We have attended since their very first sensory-friendly performance, and though we don’t go to every show, we try to attend at least several times a year.

This time we watched “Goosebumps, the Musical: The Phantom of the Auditorium.” It was probably the most complex play we’ve seen at DCT, with the possible exception of “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.” We have noticed that by taking Daniel to the theater that his theater etiquette is improving considerably, and was very well-developed this last time so that he’s sitting and quite the entire time (a few humorous asides aside). He was even annoyed that others were interrupting the play (it being a sensory-friendly performance, he was hardly the only autistic child there).

Many of the plays we have watched recently have involved magical and fantasy elements. “Goosebumps” has a ghost, “Mufaro” has several magical elements, “James & the Giant Peach” of course has the magical peach, and of course “Jack & the Beanstalk” has magic beans. These are all very troublesome to Daniel, who typically has a hard time with magical/fantasy elements because they are of course metaphorical, not literal. And he’s hyper-rational, so magic is right out.

His trouble with these elements is most obvious when the magical elements are introduced later (Mufaro) rather than being woven into the story from the beginning (James). He is always of the opinion that since this or that can’t actually happen in real life (like the singing trees in Mufaro), why would they show them on the stage, in the story? Along these same lines, his literalism tends to make it so he has a hard time understanding joking and silliness, though he is learning to understand these things through watching plays Mufaro, James, and “Frog and Toad.” Also, I am relentless in my joking and silliness with him, so now he asks me, “Are you joking?” when I am in fact joking, and then seems to (more or less) accept it when I tell him I am.

The good thing is that he seems to be getting better at accepting these elements within stories, as part of the storytelling process, as symbols for something.

While as recently as Mufaro (which we saw last Spring), Daniel was still asking questions throughout the play about what was happening, it was clear Daniel understood quite well what was happening in Goosebumps. In Goosebumps, the story is that there are these high school kids putting on a play with their theater teacher–a version of The Phantom of the Opera. Daniel immediately leaned over to his mom and said, “This is a play about another play.” He laughed, acted spooked at all the right times, and he absolutely loved the Phantom. And he’s beginning to understand how a play actually works.

Daniel and his brother and sister have a long history of putting on “plays” for their mother and me. Naturally, most of them are a collage of silliness; this last time, however, Daniel actually created a small story, did voice-over narration to set the story up, and prevented it from going on and on and on. Afterwards, he and his siblings told us to come to the living room and to bring our programs to them so they could sign them. At DCT, after each show the actors all come out and sit for pictures and signatures. The kids all get signatures and pictures; they replicated that experience here at the house.

This past performance was a real breakthrough for Daniel. He was excited to go, his stamina at the play was much better (and this was a 2 hour play), and his theater etiquette was much improved. True, he was annoyed that he could actually see the people moving the props–but this time he just leaned over and whispered about it to his mother rather than yelling out (as one child in the audience did, saying, “Hey! Where are all the actors?” during a brief scene change, which we thought was cute and funny, but which we are happy Daniel no longer does, no matter how cute and funny it can be).

And Daniel is now going even further and expanding his understanding of how theater works to understanding how films work. He understands that there has to be a writer and that the actors have to memorize the lines. He recently told me that he wants to write a future Star Wars movie, and he then went on to point out that the writer writes the words, the actors say the words, and it’s all put on film and then shown to people. This he mostly figured out on his own. As fine a summary of how to make a film as any 8-year-old could put in words.

Also, Daniel was excited to learn that there are many Goosebumps books, and he asked me to get him some. Considering the fact that he has said in the past he doesn’t like reading fiction because he doesn’t see the point in it, this is a major coup. And it’s all thanks to the theater.