Story by Thom Callahan, The Akronist
Inside the Balch Street Community Center one cold, snowy Saturday morning, a group of children play a game called Flock of Seagulls.
Each one takes a turn breaking away to soar on their own and strike a pose, at which time everyone else mimics, sort of like playing Statue. Limbs splay across the worn wooden floor, bodies leap, crouch, stand on one leg, twist – the poses are as unique as the children portraying them.
“They say, ‘If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,’” says Wendy Duke, emphasizing that no two people on the autism spectrum are alike.
Duke and fellow instructor Laura Valendza are the founders of the Center for Applied Drama and Autism (CADA), which for the past three years has been helping high-functioning autistic students navigate their world. Before moving to the Balch Street Theatre, classes were held at the Weathervane Playhouse.
Valendza defines high-functioning students as those who are verbal, possess an average to above-average IQ and are “able to connect in some way.”
The Rhode Island-based National Autism Association defines autism as a “bio-neurological developmental disability that generally appears before the age of three.” Autism impacts normal brain development, affecting specifically cognitive function, social interaction and communication skills.
NAA states further, “Individuals with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities.”
“One in 68 is the current number,” says Duke of the latest in autism diagnoses. “With boys, it’s more like one in 48.”
Students of CADA come from across the region, including Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and other schools in Cleveland and Kent.
‘Artists always feel a little outside of their world, so they use art to navigate it.’
A Script to Assist
Duke has been teaching for 22 years at the Miller South School. For six years, Valendza has worked as an intervention specialist at Miller South and is a member of the National Association for Drama Therapy.
The call to further autistic children came to Valendza and Duke both on a personal and a professional level.
“I really can relate to them [autistic children] and understand – I’ve been kind of an oddball out a lot of times,” Valendza says with a laugh, taking a playful jab at her acting profession. “Artists always feel a little outside of their world, so they use art to navigate it.”
Valendza says she’s surprised at how many students at Miller South are “diagnosed on the autism spectrum.”
Duke says she knew nothing of autism until she had an autistic student in her drama program, since which time she has continued to attend conferences to better educate herself about the disability.
Duke says autistic students at Miller South are attracted to its drama program because “it’s a safe place for them to be silly, to act out without being ridiculed, to try new things in a safe environment.”
One activity used by CADA is Play Back Theatre.
“It is in a sense under a tier of drama therapy,” Valendza explains. “It’s not necessarily working in therapy in terms of what we classify as therapy — thinking and talking back to each other to work out problems. It’s instead a way to deal with upsetting events or situations that could have happened or fears of a situation that might come up.”
She gives an example of “a child who is sitting at a lunch table alone and wants to sit with other kids, but doesn’t know how to approach them.”
Duke says the key to this program is allowing students to play out scenarios over and over.
“What we found is that rehearsal or repetition is very helpful for these kids,” she offers. “The more they repeat, the more they can internalize it and be at ease with a situation.”
Repetition is also applied to other exercises used by CADA to help maintain direct eye contact, a sensory issue common to those on the spectrum who typically avoid it.
Either Duke or Valendza is leading classes, while the other is observing, taking photos or videos to view for later assessment.
Other players who give their time to CADA are former Miller South students Bree Chambers, Jordan Euell and Charlie Kapper, Akron Public Schools autism teacher Margaret Oliver and Miller South’s technical director Robert Keith.
“We’re not changing them,” Valendza says, “but giving them the tools to be OK with managing and enjoying the world around them.”
Duke adds that the students are encouraged to explore their individuality.
“We like helping each child find their way — to teach them to enjoy their specialness,” she says. “They have such gifts.”
CADA is housed under the Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture (CATAC), which is overseen by the New World Performance Lab. The lab was founded more than 20 years ago by Jim Slowiak, a professor of theatre at the University of Akron.
After more than two decades with Akron Public Schools, Duke will be leaving her job in June to focus full-time on developing CADA. She hopes to expand the Center’s offerings to include after- and in-school programs.
Currently, CADA’s hour-long classes comprise two age groups and are held each Saturday at the Balch Street Theatre. The winter schedule runs Jan. 10 through March 21, except for March 7, when there will be no classes.
All classes use applied drama, such as improvisation, role playing, theatre games, voice and body work, mask work, play writing and student-created puppet plays.
The Heroes and Sidekicks course is geared for ages 8 to 14 and costs $150 for 10 sessions. Students “create and develop hero and sidekick characters that will help them navigate social and emotional situations in a safe an playful environment,” according to the CADA website.
Because of the age of this group, Valendza says more “play time” is used.
The Next Stage: Transitioning with Drama is another course aimed for 15- to 22-year-olds. This course creates an individualized program to help students transition from middle to high school, or from high school to college and/or a career. With video and site-specific work, these students tackle anxiety-causing situations, such as job interviews and peer interactions, and work to develop support networks.
As a pilot program, Next Stage’s tuition is “based on a lot of things,” Valendza says. Some students do pay for the sessions, while others pay by volunteering their time to assist the Heroes class, which they once took.
“The older kids came from the Miller South drama program, so they know the games, how to play them,” Valendza explains. “They are such great role models for the little kids, who see what they’re doing, love it and join right in.”
Class sizes on this Saturday is four to five students. Ten students would be the maximum, Valendza says, because of the intense, individualized nature of the classes.
Scholarships and discounts are available, based on need, and CADA actively seeks funding in order to continue offering both.
Breaking the Mold
There’s much misconception about the autistic world, Valendza says, such as that those on the spectrum choose not to care or purposely separate themselves from or hurt others.
While autistic individuals do have a hard time collaborating, Valendza says, it “isn’t a choice” they make.
“It breaks my heart that people sometimes look at those with autism as if it’s leprosy,” Valendza says. “They are just such incredibly wonderful individuals, with the same human needs, desires, wants and fears, like everyone else.”
One way to help these students is to “develop skills via theatre,” Duke says. “Our dream is to start a theatre company called Theatre on the Spectrum.”
The company would not be just about developing acting skills, but creating business managers, designers, coordinators and graphic artists, all of which are “applicable to work outside the theatre and are viable skills,” Valendza says.
She pauses, with kids whooping it up in the background.
“Our kids are incredibly wonderful, good-hearted individuals,” she says. “And they have so much to give to the world if we just open ourselves to them and if we help them open themselves to others.”
CADA is always looking for volunteers. Specifically, the Center could use help with fundraising, management, grant-writing and publicity. Those interested in volunteering, in helping to fund or in learning more about CADA can visit the Center’s website or its Facebook page.