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Building Empathy Through Drama

If you ever meet Rahul, the first thing you’d notice would be his dark brown eyes. But they’d

rarely meet your gaze. Rahul has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and social interactions are difficult for him. He also struggles with repetitive behaviors and often resists trying new things. His mother says he often doesn’t appear to understand if other kids are feeling happy or annoyed, which leads to awkward and difficult relationships with his peers.

Rahul is happiest when he is playing with lego blocks in his room. But during a drama therapy group session, you might see Rahul in a different way.

Dramatherapy is the use of drama and theater techniques in order to meet therapeutic goals. Drama is a field that helps tap into creativity and self-expression in order to allow people the opportunity to problem solve, express feelings, and interact socially in a new way. Using improvisation, storytelling, and role play, drama encourages people to try out new behaviors and get immediate feedback in an active way.

For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, trying new behaviors and interacting socially may be one of their most difficult challenges. Being a part of drama provides your child with a structured and fun way to practise these skills in a supportive and safe environment.

Drama for people who have Autism can help to:

● Improve self confidence and self esteem

● Improve one’s ability to recognise and respond to emotions

● Improve verbal and nonverbal communication skills

● Teach ways to interact successfully in a group

● Improve one’s ability to follow directions

● Improve body awareness and natural movement

● Increase creativity and imagination

Remember Rahul? During a drama exercise, Rahul and his classmate practice making and

identifying different facial expressions. They are encouraged to use exaggerated body language, and to incorporate lines from their favourite movies or cartoon characters.

This mix of familiar and creative provides Rahul with enough security to try out new skills. He laughs as his classmate makes an exaggerated “angry” face, but gets serious as he practices phrases he can use to ask others how they are feeling.

Here are a few tips to engage in drama sessions at home

Role plays

Acting allows people to try out new behaviours. Role play can be a cathartic way to express

difficult feelings and examine one's relationships with others. You can pick and create different scenarios, for instance: someone had a fall and is hurt, exaggerate the pain and scream; role play how you will react in such incidents or try make an angry facial expression focusing on frowned brows and red flushed cheeks, loud screechy voice to indicate anger.

Use props such as puppets, masks or even a costume

Using different types of props helps create real life scenarios that are extremely relatable.

Pretend play using costumes is a great way to teach emotions. Creating scenarios that bring out different emotions by focusing on the facial expressions and labeling the emotion works well. A puppet can tell a difficult story, a mask can demonstrate a feeling, and a costume can transform a child to a different time and place.

Role on the Imaginary Wall

Draw an outline of a character you wish to explore at a certain crucial moment on a large chart paper or on the whiteboard. For instance, your child’s favorite cartoon character came in contact with a lion or a bear what that character might be thinking and feeling in that particular moment.

Then write down a speech bubble to share what the character might say to support what they are feeling in that moment.

Verbalize Your Own Empathy

Modelling responses to an emotional scenario is also a great way to learn appropriate expressing of emotions. For example, if you see that your child is upset, you can say aloud, “I can see you are upset because you are crying. I wonder what’s upsetting you. Oh I know. Many children get upset when they fall down. Is that what happened to you?” You can also verbalize taking the perspective of others around your child and even the perspective of strangers.

Have every confidence that your child can and will learn to relate empathetically to others. Your child has the basic building blocks of empathy; now you just need to help him or her learn the skills that will help take recognition of others’ feelings to the next level.



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