IMPROV Can Be A Great Resource for Autistic Students

Jen Olenizcak, founder of “The Engaging Educator” recently lead a program over the course of two weeks where six students on the autism spectrum and their families took a one hour class on the Neustadt Collection at Queens Museum, which is a collection of Tiffany lamps, windows, metal-work, flat and pressed-glass “jewels” and much more. What she noticed was that there were many individual successes but also the areas of empathy, eye contact, and imaginative play saw improvements through the whole group.

The students she worked with really liked her exercise in empathy. She would pair people up and while one person’s eyes are closed, their partner connects their fingertips and leads the “blind” person around using only the touch of their fingers. Children with ASD tend to have trouble with empathy, but for this activity, they carefully guided their parents around the gallery space and by week two  were guiding their peers around.

After the end of week one, the group ended with an activity called “Pass the Clap”.  It starts with the first person turning to the person next to them, makes eye contact and then they both try to clap their hands at the same time while maintaining eye contact. The next person then turns to the person next to them, continuing around in a circle to “pass the clap”. Eye contact is something that people on the spectrum in general tend to have a difficult time doing and some student had to be reminded to “see what color eyes” the person next to them had. However, they continued this for a period of time and it was a largely successful activity.

The group also engaged in imaginative activities where they had to try to embody different emotions like “happy” or “sad.” They also tried posing like the people they saw in the photos in the gallery and created their own stories about the plants and flowers design that they observed on the Tiffany lamps. For example Jen Olenizcak’s student partner told her that she was the tulip and then proceeded to act out a story about the wind, a bee getting pollen, and snowflakes falling on the tulip.

She was very excited with the level of engagement from the students and their families and though the results of this very short study was only tried this one time she is hopeful that perhaps if the program could be extended to more than two weeks, more than one class session so that perhaps we can see something really inspiring happen. “Would the empathy move beyond the class and contribute to a better understanding of emotions? Could the eye contact in “Pass the Clap” transfer to everyday life”? We don’t know the answers, but we would sure like to find out.

We will be talking about some emerging and innovative therapeutic practices as well as issues of empathy, specifically on Day 2 of our upcoming International Autism Conference. For more information and ticket registration, CLICK HERE!