5 Tips for Teaching Theater to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Acting from the Outside In

By James Lekatz

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) present challenges for a typical theater classroom: possible deficits in communication, sensory processing, social skills, and fine motor control. However, students with ASD can also have wonderful strengths for a theater classroom: honesty, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Approaching a theater class from a physical theater pedagogy allows students with ASD to focus on their strengths, build confidence, and develop social skills. Here are 5 tips to start acting from the outside in.

  1. Adopt routine and structure. Begin classes with the same routine: conduct a verbal check-in with each student so everyone has a chance to share what’s going on in their lives; follow with a centering warm-up exercise (introduce a set of skills that students can improve on over time); then a student-led warm-up exercise (this improvisational process incorporates a repeated structure and lets students take ownership of their class); and finish by going over the schedule of the day. Always end class with the same structure: review what was completed and go over what will be accomplished in the next class. Routines and structures help foster a safe and welcoming atmosphere for the students.
  1. Create an atmosphere of playfulness. When playfulness is explored and expressed, the room is allowed to relax. Students are willing to take creative risks and make big choices. Usually, students don’t have a fear of failing or of doing the “wrong thing” when there is an atmosphere of playfulness. Often times, starting an improvisational situation, scene work, or other exercise by doing it the “wrong way” allows all students a chance to fully engage in what they are doing. Nobody can fail, that is the purpose! From this place of playful “failure,” students are able to fully participate and laugh at themselves and each other in a supportive way. Being playful does not mean being disrespectful, chaotic, or unfocused. Playfulness is structured, focused, and allows space for creative freedom, supported peer interaction, and a desire to try again. It also invites full body movement and a physical response with the voice.
  1. Use body, movement, and gesture. Typical theater is based on psychological realism, or memory recall of emotion—acting from the inside out. This is an absolutely valid way of creating theater; however, if we take a physical route to create theater, using physical representations of characters, spatial relationships, and whole body gestures—acting from the outside in—students are able to dive deeper into their creativity. They no longer rely on representing feelings; they can be active and actually show, not just tell, what they are feeling.
  1. Remain open to possibilities. Give students the choice as to who or what they want to represent on stage. The protection of a character lets students’ self-expression evolve in a way that is not possible if they are acting as themselves. It is the job, and joyful challenge, of the teacher to figure out how to put characters together into a story. When it comes to pre-existing scene work, let the students cast the scene as well. This not only sets in motion an interest in the work they are about to begin, but it gives them an ownership of the process.
  1. Ask, “What did you notice?” Leave time for observations and discussions. This allows the teacher to recap what has been accomplished, but also offers time for the students to synthesize what they have experienced. It gives ample opportunity for students who have minimal language skills to express their observations. Prompting the students with the question, “What did you notice?” takes away the personal opinion of a student’s work; the “I liked it when…” is thrown away. An actual critique occurs as students specifically noticed a particular moment. The follow up questions are, “How did it make you feel?” or “What did it remind you of?” These questions help the students bridge the gap from the classroom to their personal lives.


A picture of the author holding a colorful string instrument behind his head.

James Lekatz

James Lekatz is an Education Associate and Arts Access Specialist at Stages Theatre Company. He continues to be instrumental in leading the charge for Stages Theatre Company’s outreach and access efforts, and brokering new partnerships with community organizations. He is also a resident teaching artist in many Twin Cities school districts and is the lead teacher of CAST (Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre), a program for students ages 7-17 with ASD.  

One comment

  1. Angi Herrick

    Thanks for the tips! I am a drama teacher with my own business. Many parents have approached me about teaching a class for children on the spectrum or incorporating their child into my existing classes. Are the resources out there for me to learn how to do this successfully?


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