How I teach - Acting to promote awareness

A theatre project unites autistic young people with their peers

Kate Reynolds

In a room full of enthusiastic, engaged young people who had gathered to share a day of performance and song, we watched David and Emily strike up a particularly fruitful partnership.

David had been nervous at the start of the project - a group activity to build confidence through artistic expression. Emily was more confident and appeared to bring David gently along with her, ensuring he was involved in most aspects of the group work but also developing an important one-to-one rapport.

Their partnership was the happy result of a pilot initiative to improve understanding between children of different abilities: David has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) whereas Emily is a typical teenager.

It all began last year when we at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester asked ourselves a simple question: why do we work with young people with ASD in isolation when we are trying to develop their personal abilities and confidence?

For five years we had been delivering a music theatre project aimed solely at students with ASD aged 10-14. But we felt that we could be doing more to dispel the social stigma of autism, fostering mutual awareness and empathy between young people with different learning needs.

You can't do that by keeping young people with ASD and those without apart, so we needed to get them together to collaborate. But how? And what were the risks?

For the students with ASD, joint working could have compromised the safe and supportive environment they needed to develop improved self-confidence and self-esteem.

As for the other teenagers, who themselves had challenging personal backgrounds, we needed to provide enough stimulation to develop their skills at the same time as giving them a new understanding of ASD.

Planning, communication and transparency were everything, because many people do not like surprises whether they have ASD or not. We worked with the two groups separately at first, developing performance sequences, musical scores and artwork, but spent significant amounts of time making them aware of each other's existence.

During this period, they communicated via their project leaders and were so inspired that they began sending personal letters to find out more about members of the other group. It was looking good, but if the plan failed when they came together, we would upset the equilibrium of not one but two groups of young people.

But the partnership of David and Emily was broadly indicative of the success of the project as a whole, with both groups growing in confidence. They combined seamlessly in January, before presenting a piece of shared musical theatre at the Royal Exchange in March.

The students' response to our leap of faith was to work hard as a collaborative company, to consider and respect each other's ideas and, importantly, to have fun learning about themselves and each other. The project was a reminder that having confidence in the resilience and attitudes of young people of all abilities is equally important.

Kate Reynolds is participation and learning manager at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester

Top 10 pair and group activities

1. Pythagoras pointers

Cultivate a team ethic and a solid grounding in Pythagoras' theorem with this group activity in which students take turns to perform four different roles.

2. Coining it in

Work on children's spatial awareness and recognition of money with this game for two, requiring players to describe where to place money on a grid.

3. Chattering class

The ever-popular playground "Chatterbox" - the origami equivalent of a crystal ball, traditionally used to divine the romantic prospects of lovelorn 10-year-olds - is put to good use in this activity designed to get children asking questions.

4. Group intelligence

Tips for helping your students to work well in groups, spread across 52 colourful and information-packed slides.

5. Halves and halve nots

In this fast-paced doubling and halving game, children must work in pairs to beat other teams.

6. Marking time

Add value to paired reading sessions with these handy bookmarks listing question prompts to get students talking.

7. Dive into data

Worksheets to guide students through a group task on establishing a hypothesis and collecting related data.

8. Ban it all

Practise debating skills with these "argument cards". Topics include "Should mobile phones be banned in schools?", "Should zoos be banned?" and "Should smoking be banned?"

9. Gallic games

Engaging games and group tasks for French lessons to get students comfortable with the language.

10. Market values

A lively game in which students learn about special dietary requirements by acting as traders and "buying" and "selling" information in a marketplace.

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Kate Reynolds

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