About three years ago, I got an email publicizing a drama school called the Center for Applied Drama and Autism, C.A.D.A. I was instantly interested. A year before, my 10-year-old son Tommy had been diagnosed with autism. I had always wanted him to get into acting because I’d acted as a child, having been in shows such as Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof at local dinner theaters. Tommy seemed as though he would be a natural because he had the ability to memorize scripts (he was an avid scripter; people who are autistic often are), and he was very funny.
The school was in downtown Akron, about fifteen minutes away from our home. I signed him up. Soon, one Saturday a few weeks later, we entered an old building on Main Street and searched for the acting studio. Down a staircase we went and soon we found ourselves in C.A.D.A.
Tommy was going to take improv. Improvisation classes, we would learn, are good for autistic people because they help them to be better communicators (learning to think on their feet) and ultimately find their own voices. These classes were also fun.
We’d done traditional social groups at centers for people on the spectrum, but these had turned out to be unsuccessful because they lacked vital context and purpose. Acting encouraged the participants to be social, but also to be creative, making up narratives and scenarios.
The first day at improv, Tommy and his classmates warmed up doing an exercise called “Zip, Zap, Zop,” in which they passed energy to each other. Then, they did an exercise called “Mirrors,” in which they mimicked each other as if they were looking in a mirror. Then came a game called “Bus Stop,” where they pretended to be waiting for a bus in a character of their choosing. Soon, they would be acting out fairy tales and even learning Shakespeare.
Tommy took to it. There was only one problem. Well, really two problems. The first was that there was a very loud service bell that people rang so that they could get in the building which was often locked. This service bell unnerved Tommy. He had sensory issues, so the bell was a hindrance in his play. The second problem was that I got cancer, and Tommy fell apart. While I was getting treatment, we had to stop going to drama for a time. But I survived cancer, and then, something else wonderful happened. C.A.D.A. moved! No more service bell. C.A.D.A. relocated to what is known as their blue box theater in Akron, where they currently reside.
Now in 2019 at the blue box theater, Tommy takes improv from Ruben Ryan and Brandon Meeker. He goes every Saturday. And he’s getting good. He can sustain a scene and create original dialogue that is purposeful and entertaining. Improv helps him stay in the moment, to be in the moment, completely engaged and fascinated with people and life. This is saying something for someone on the autism spectrum, who might often be disengaged and out of touch.
So whose brainchild is C.A.D.A.? C.A.D.A. was co-created by Wendy Duke, a drama teacher for over 40 years, and Laura Valendza, an actor and intervention specialist.
C.A.D.A.’s philosophy is as follows:
Our goal is to meet our students where they are now, and without coercion, help them to recognize their own abilities and gifts through empowerment and making connections. We do not wish to change the uniqueness of each student, but rather help each one deal with social and emotional situations that will occur throughout their lives.
We do this via individual and collaborative applied drama techniques such as theatre games, improvisation, role play, character study, voice and body work, mask work (commedia dell’ arte), and Play Back Theatre. Additionally, we encourage creativity and originality through student created puppet plays, playwriting and video production. Visual art, dance and music are all key components in theatrical productions and give our students an opportunity to expand their artistic gifts and interests.
What does all this mean? For a parent of a child on the spectrum, it means that my kid can study acting at a world-class acting school right in our own little Akron, Ohio.
Recently, Tommy was asked to be a “co-star” at C.A.D.A. This means that he will work with a class of younger students as sort of a mentor/helper. Tommy’s father and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Tommy has gone from a timid pre-teen who was frightened by everything, including a loud service bell, to a full-fledged teenage actor in a leadership role.
If your child has autism, you might consider enrolling him or her in acting classes in your hometown. I’m sure acting courses can benefit your child. These classes have made all the difference in Tommy’s life.