Benefits of Theater and Dramatherapy for Children with Autism

Guest post by Andréas RB Deolinda, BA, BSc.

As an educational facilitator who has worked in special education schools, I know many people have a modernized idea of what theater and drama is—they think about Broadway, the West End, etc. and only really see theater as performance. I have to admit I used to hold a similar view but now, having completed a degree in Drama Therapy, I truly know theater is a great learning tool and an experiential form of expression.

From a dramatherapy perspective, theater is used as a means to drive healing, while applied drama and theater explores facets of the human experience from a social perspective. Elements of theater such as improvisation, role play, role enactment, games, and storytelling, can all be used to create narratives and find meaning behind our unconscious and lived experiences.

Girls doing a dramatic performance on theater stage

Dramatherapy pioneer Sue Jennings comments: “Dramatherapy is based on two fundamental hypotheses. Firstly, there is an intrinsic relationship between the art of healing and the nature of dramatic art. Secondly, that through enactment and re-enactment, man is not only capable of personal growth and change, he is in fact continually maintaining his social and individual identity… The dramatherapy process seeks to affect healing and change, therefore it differs from drama which can be done for its own sake or for pure entertainment.”

So, how does all this relate to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Well, it’s known that many people on the spectrum struggle with social skills, communication, anxiety, and making friends. When a broad understanding of theater is developed, it’s clear there are so many therapeutic benefits for children with autism. Below, I will outline just a few.

Mental and physical benefits of theater for autistic kids

  • Theater can be verbal and non-verbal. In theater, we use sounds, props, drawing, dancing, or movement to tell a story or explore a topic. This makes it beneficial for children with autism because it uses different tools for communication (something that many autistic kids struggle with). It is also a sensory experience exploring different mediums and it can meet each child at their individual skill-set/needs.
  • Children learning their lines before performance
  • Theater is a form of expression. Through embodiment, storytelling, or enactment, the child is able to translate or express their inner feelings and release their emotions in a safe space. Dialoguing about the theater process allows for deeper exploration. If a certain topic is close to home, you can create a different story that has elements of that experience and act it out—this method distances the child from their situation while still allowing them to express what they are going through. You can even introduce a mask and ask the child to enact their story by giving the mask the character of their choice.
  • Theater develops the imagination. Theater is metaphoric. It allows children to drive their own narrative through play, stories or enactment rather than being a direct means of questioning or conversation. It gives children on the autism spectrum initiative to imagine, exploring new characters and worlds. For children with ASD who are generally more comfortable with routine and rigidity, this allows them to open their minds to new worlds and adventures.
  • Theater builds speech and language. Practitioners and workshop leaders might choose to use scripts or involve children in verbal activities such as tongue-twisters and singing. All of this can help develop language and strengthen dialogue for kids on the spectrum.
  • Children bowing after a dramatic performance at theater
  • Theater is good for social skills. Through theater, autistic children can be encouraged to play with their peers in a supportive, exploratory environment. The activities and workshops naturally encourage turn-taking and collaboration and give children the opportunity to create in a group environment.

Summing up

Children with autism or additional needs can benefit from theater programs because there’s no right or wrong answers in theater. As long as there is a safe space for the child to play and a supportive environment, theater can use any medium to drive and achieve so many goals.

Little boy in costume ready for dramatic performance at theater

Theater is universal. It is inclusive of every person’s abilities because it can be tailored to meet the needs of each individual. For children on the autism spectrum, theater and dramatherapy allow them to engage in narratives and embody them, thus driving a stronger connection with the imagination, developing social and communication skills, involving sensory play, and so much more.

Did you enjoy this article? Learn more from Autism Parenting Magazine, the leading international publication for autism families.

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