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What are the barriers of learning for a learner with autism/Aspergers in Performing Arts and can Performing Arts support the learning of a learner diagnosed with Autism/Aspergers?

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Q: What are the barriers of learning for a learner with autism/Aspergers in Performing Arts and can Performing Arts support the learning of a learner diagnosed with Autism/Aspergers?

This essay is going to attempt to answer some of the questions that arise from teaching an individual, studying Performing Arts, who has been diagnosed with Aspergers or Autism syndrome (AS). First of all the paper will define autism, discuss the differences between Aspergers and Autism. Looking at behaviour, social communication differences in and out of the classroom before delving in to the natural barriers the syndrome creates for the learning of the individual learner. The essay will look at theories behind the Performing Arts as a subject and what the topic matter can do for the individual learner participating. Finally the essay will attempt to cross reference the skills Performing Arts offers and how the subject could assist in overcoming the barriers for a learner with Autism.

To understand what Autism/Aspergers (AS)/High functioning Autism (HFA) is and how it affects learning this paper will discuss exactly how the syndrome has been defined. The definition will be constructed by various psychologists, theorists and from an academic who has been diagnosed with Aspergers.

There isn’t a simple definition of Autism or Asperger that can be literally written in one sentence. The Collins online dictionary attempts a brief definition with the following statement:

abnormal self-absorption, usually affecting children, characterized by lack of response to people and limited ability to communicate 17/04/11
It is clear from this definition that there are many facets to Autism. The sweeping statement that claims usually affecting children is immediately at question as there are many adults who suffer from this syndrome. Clare Sainsbury (2009) an author suffering from Asperger syndrome writes that AS is a developmental disorder of neurological origin which affects very approximately at least one in every thousand people and which affects
communication and social interaction. Sainsbury, 2009, P. 29

The consistency of communicating problems is already apparent from Sainsbury’s statement and the definition from the Collins dictionary. Sainsbury highlights social interaction as an issue which could be an associating issue from the communication aspect of the syndrome. Frank Sansotti (2010) supports Sainsbury’s classification when he comments that HFA/AS is currently understood as a developmental disorder characterized by children who have significant difficulties in social interaction and relationships, display a lack of empathy and engage in unusual patterns of interest and unique stereotyped behaviours. Sansotti, 2010, P.3

The idea of a developmental disorder may suggest that at some stage the individual hasn’t had the nurture that is required and therefore suffers from Autism. Sainsbury is quick to disclaim this fact as she comments that all researchers have agreed that autism is wholly biological in nature. Sainsbury, 2009, P. 29

Sansotti also comments on social interaction as a fault with autism and that becomes another characterisation of the Autistic syndrome that is becoming consistent. The inability to display empathy will be revisited shortly. Before this paper begins to run away from the definition it may be a worthwhile time to recap that autism is developmental disorder that causes a defect in communication, social and difference to the “normal” behaviour of an individual person. The cause isn’t down to nurture so the essay will not look anymore in to this issue. Empathy is another key aspect mentioned by both Sainsbury and Sansotti. The fact that individuals with Autistic tendencies struggle to read other’s behaviour can lead to problematic social situations and Sansotti comments that a key finding was that children at an early age did not demonstrate the ability to take the perspective of others. Sansotti, 2010, P.6

The one question that is often reoccurring is what are the differences between Asperger, Autism and High functioning Autism/Asperger? Sainsbury refers to Asperger as possible mild form of Autism yet others argue
different. Some argue that the significant difference between the two syndromes is simply the absence of delay in language and cognitive skills (Sainsbury, 2009, P.30) Sainsbury continues to separate the two by commenting that it more useful to speak of autism with and without language delays and learning difficulties. Sainsbury, 2009, P.30

It can be easy to assume that there is a low IQ for people with autism but that isn’t the case. That is where high functioning Autism/Asperger is measured. Depending on the ability and symptoms of the individual in question will determine whether they are referred to as autistic or high functioning autistic. Those at the low end or less impaired are deemed to be high functioning. Sansotti comments that these less impaired children may demonstrate odd social mannerisms, a long winded, pedantic, communication style and rare or unique special interest (such as deep fry cookers etc.) such children are under the diagnosis high functioning autism. Sansotti, 2010, P.2

So autism has staple traits that Sainsbury describes in a very similar fashion to Sansotti but the fact that we have high functioning, Asperger and Autism suggests that not all sufferers are the same and that the very title high functioning offers that there may be different levels of Autism. Sansotti describes this by commenting that:

The degree of impairment among children with AS is highly variable and characteristics of the disability may present themselves various combinations, from very severe to very mild. Sansotti, 2010, P.2

The very fact that Autism is so varied from case to case has lead researchers over the last thirty years to refer to this gap as a spectrum. Sansotti reflects that scholars have termed Autism as the autism spectrum disorder.

Christopher D. Webster (1980) a leading Autistic researcher claims there are fourteen aspects to diagnosing Autism. Although this essay will not examine all fourteen it certifies that they maybe important to list as they are still argued today as early and regular signs of Autism that are displayed at different levels. Webster defines each one in his 1980 book “Autism” but here they are listed as: Affect Isolation

Webster admits that it is possible to reduce this list due to similarities but he believed to define Autism or recognise it’s detail all fourteen should be taken in to consideration. It is easy to see how complex the autistic spectrum is and how many factors are integral to developing an understanding to how it affects learning. Webster finishes his first chapter with a statement that this essay will use a bridge between defining Autism and building a comprehension of how it creates learning barriers. Webster stated that “for the moment it’s necessary to consider our proposition that autism is a severe disorder of communication.” Webster, 1980, P.11

The actual definition continues to build and it may be useful to start linking the definition with the aspects that create barriers to learning. Writing in Sainsbury’s Martian in the Playground, Lorna Wing (1981) explains her “Triad of Impairments” theory that offers the main defining areas of the autistic spectrum. They are:

Problems with Social Interaction
Problems with Communication
Problems with Imagination

The Triad can be perceived reducing the fourteen components of Webster’s earlier classification but it is integral to this essay’s understanding of learning barriers that are associated with AS. Drama in particular is concerned with the communication, social and imagination aspects.

The Triad supports this papers discovery that autism creates an issue with concepts of communication and social interaction problems with AS it may be a good place to start as it not only clearly offers where the definition lies within a person but also links to learning barriers that this paper will eventually discuss and analyse.

Wing’s list states social communication first but it may be wise to look at the third comment, Imagination. The imagination is the stronghold to the other two factors. Wing states that the term imagination isn’t a “Lack of Imagination” but more of an individual developing an elaborate fantasy world. Sainsbury, 2009, P.33

Wing describes the imagination aspect as a problem with flexible thinking. Thus making it difficult for an individual suffering with AS to cope with change and difficulty in understanding how others are feeling or thinking. She comments (AS) leads to problems with change and a need for rigid routines. Sainsbury, 2009, P.33

Struggling to cope with flexible thinking leads directly in to communication issues. The Autistic mind finds sarcasm and metaphors a difficult anomaly. The individual with AS may take a literal understanding of questions asked, such as “take that chair”, they will automatically try and take the chair, often looking confused as to why they have been asked to “Take a chair” when in fact the instruction was intended to sit on the chair. Sainsbury supports Wing’s theory that “We mostly have apparently “normal” language, our communication difficulties are more subtle, our difficulties often involve aspects of language that goes beyond the literal meaning, such as recognizing sarcasm or metaphors.” Sainsbury, 2009, P.33

The metaphor in this case being, take a chair. This is a simple social metaphor that the autistic mind can struggle to interpret. This can extend to struggling to understand their peers during class. During Drama sessions a learner will have to interact with peers in either pair work, small group activities or as whole class. A simple warm up Drama game can become challenging if the learner with AS struggles to read what his peers are trying to say or do. A simple Drama game may require expressions, mannerisms and instructions to be passed amongst class members. Sainsbury continues to support this issue.

The essential social problem in autistic spectrum conditions is not of avoidance or lack of interest but more the inability to read the “facial expression, tone of voice and body language of others. Sainsbury, 2009, P.34

This continues on to the final aspect of the “Triad” , the social aspect and is a clear following issue relating to the other parts of the “Triad” The social concept of conversation can become quite a challenge for some one with AS. The literal thinking nature of the syndrome initiates them to respond different to the socially accepted “Norm”. Sainsbury commented that many people with Apserger’s syndrome, like me, spontaneously compare themselves to extraterrestrials. Sainsbury, 2009, P.34

The social problems which lead to learning barriers comes from a terminology called “Theory of Mind” where an individual is unable to comprehend or read an others intentions or empathise with another person’s feelings. Rebecca l. Fritschie writes that, whereas most typically developing children are able to “mentalize” or presume the mental state of peers, adults by the age of 4, children and adolescence with HFA/AS are impaired in this ability. Sansotti, 2010, P.26.

This relates directly with the Triad’s Imagination concept. The fact that the Theory of Mind concentrates on the inability to read others emotions doubles up in that the individual with AS fails to comprehend that his/her
intentions are not normal to the others around them. Fritschie calls this mindblindness and comments that it seems to prevent children and adolescence with AS from being able to understand how their behaviours may affect the thoughts and feelings of others. Sansotti, 2010, P.26

This can lead to lead to a lack of understanding in the classroom/studio with what other performers are doing. This ties in with the social and communication impairments someone with AS has. This can also give an individual with AS a stigma with in the class due to the reactions from other class members upon their different behavioural responses. Sainsbury talks of her own experience at secondary school, People with Apserger’s syndrome are able to learn social norms and rules eventually, but only clumsily and with great intellectual effort. Sainsbury, 2009, P.88

It is the “clumsy” attempt at socially accepted behaviour and communication that thwarts an individual with AS and can create carriers between themselves and their class members and therefore their learning. The tutor needs to be aware this is happening and will have to try and deal with it, although sadly they cannot prevent a natural reaction from a peer when they don’t understand the behaviour of an individual with AS. Sainsbury supports this using her own experience by saying my reactions to various situations were not quite what people expected. A kid would greet with me smiles but I would sometimes give no response, which gave the others the impression that I was unfriendly. Sainsbury, 2009, P.80

The teacher or tutor can assist in preventing this but it could be an earlier barrier to learning and a potential retaining issue if undetected. Peer exclusion can occur early on during a course of study and even more so when AS is taken in to consideration. When new classes are constructed children all have their own inhibitions and concerns about the new class. People can react with an immediate effect to things they see different from “normal” behaviour. Sainsbury once again adds that other school children seem to have very limited tolerance for social deviance of any sort, however subtle. Sainsbury, 2009, P.80

An example of how this works in the autistic mind can be described as central coherence. This is where an individual on the autistic spectrum struggles to react to more than one stimulus at a time. This can be particularly difficult when trying take in a new space with lots of different things to absorb at once. The central coherence allows individuals without autism to process all the different aspects of a room, peoples clothes etc. Depending on where the person is on the autistic spectrum will affect their reaction. Rebecca Fritschie describes the affect this has on people with AS, Individuals with a weak central coherence, such as children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, tend to sequentially process information by focussing on the fine details or parts of a stimuli. Sansotti, 2010, P.28

It is this behaviour when entering a new room or class that can appear different to other learners. It may be someone’s T-shirt that the person with AS becomes infatuated with or a poster on the wall that causes them to stare. This will depend on the severity of the autism at hand. This can still affect a person with AS even if they have no problems with processing other people’s emotion etc (Theory of Mind) Fritschie adds that a weak central coherence may explain why an individual with HFA/AS who has the appropriate theory of mind skills continues to struggle socially in a real world setting. Sansotti, 2010, P.29

Even if someone with AS doesn’t leave a course of study the social exclusion or peer teasing can have negative effect on their learning and behaviour. Returning to Clare Sainsbury’s reflective accounts it is interesting reading that the social struggles affecting a person with AS can lead to low self esteem and thus another learning barrier. One person with As Sainsbury interviewed commented that “there are emotional scars from all the years of teasing that I endured. My self esteem suffered as a result, it took many years to rebuild that part of myself.” Sainsbury, 2009, P.85

The self esteem relates directly Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow (1954) believed there was certain steps a learner/human being had to take and achieve before full potential could be achieved. It is important to realise that just because someone has learning difficulties or AS that this is still the case. In Susan Wallace’s (2003) book, Managing and behaviour and Motivating students in further education, Maslow’s theory is used to describe how places self esteem on the third tier/step on his hierarchy of needs. Therefore without achieving a strong self esteem a learner cannot value for personal growth (Learning). Wallace, 2003, p68

So the inter connecting triad of social, communicative and imagination issues for the person with AS stretches beyond peer understanding, it has an effect on personal feelings and possible self esteem issues. If self esteem becomes an issue and self value is affected then it is safe to assume that depression and lack of self worth can affect social interactions and ultimately the learning of an individual with AS. Sansotti writes that many students with HFA/AS may begin to demonstrate symptoms of depression and anxiety as they develop insights in to their differences from others. Sansotti, 2010, P.77

Another contributing factor to barriers with learning for adolescents with AS is a common issue of irregular sleeping patterns. Although it’s not an issue with every individual with AS it is still a big enough factor to take in to consideration. The sleep deprivation they can suffer can affect their energy levels during the day, which can create lethargic behaviour and add to their indifferent reactions to their every day surroundings. The clumsy movement and tiredness is a direct learning barrier that needs considering by tutors. Fritschie adds that Issues of disordered sleep can have a significant negative impact on the daytime functioning of these individuals including elevated behavioural outbursts, daytime and learning problems. Sansotti, 2010, P.23

So this essay has assessed how autism can affect an individual and create learning barriers. This next section will begin to link that with Performing Arts and the factors that can help people with AS, hinder their learning and how teachers can take steps to try and manage the situation. With all courses learners will participate with interviews and more often than not an audition with a course based in the performing arts sector. It is therefore necessary for the faculty to take in to consideration what is required for an individual with AS to reach their full potential. Having looked at the emotional problems that can develop in young adults then this may well be a good starting point for a tutor or course leader when structuring a programme of learning involving any one with AS. Sansotti supports this notion, given the complications of emotional problems for later outcomes, it is crucial that school based practitioners assess the emotional functioning of students with HFA/AS, Sansotti, 2010, P.77

Early links to emotional problems can be assisted or hindered by social implications early on as already discussed in this paper. Again it may be important for a tutor to not only monitor early group interactions but also make simple rules and standards that could ease a person with AS from an early setting. One suggestion could be to introduce a dress code for rehearsing or workshop action. One idea could be for everyone to wear one colour only such as white or black. Sainsbury interview many different people with AS and another interviewee commented that having fashion sense, keeping hygiene and socializing in larger groups of people were skills that only began to solidify for me in my years after graduating from school. Sainsbury, 2009, P.83

Taking this in to consideration it may be a wise solution to concentrate on small group activities during early class sessions. This can attempt to reduce anxiety with the person with AS and still include them in a room with a large group, yet the person with AS can focus on their smaller group. Tutor groups can be split in to smaller groups in the early weeks to help anyone with AS a chance to get used to groups. It is important to comment that this isn’t a full proof plan of action but hypotheses that could be put in to practice. Webster’s chapter in the book “Autism” states that If behaviour modifiers think there is one key, they are wrong. If there is one key-it is that there isn’t. Webster, 1980, P.16

So with a wide autistic spectrum no one person with AS will be the same and therefore no plan of action will work every time. This paper could build concepts of how to assist in implementing an individual with AS in to a new group but it may be more beneficial to start looking at what benefits a Drama course could offer someone with AS. Wiltshire College Salisbury claims that their performing Arts B-Tec extended Diploma aims to prepare you with confidence and offer a variety of skills to take to higher education, employment and possibly drama school. www.wiltshire.ac.uk/ftcourses/detail.aspx?ref=FEDIPPERFA3 22/04/11

Developing employment and links to further education are usually staple expectations of most level three sixth form or Further Education College courses. What Wiltshire College ensues with its programme for the performing arts course is also supported by other Colleges offering Drama courses. Itchen College in Southampton for another example quotes that:

You will develop an understanding of drama and theatre, analytical and creative skills, and an ability to communicate effectively with others  22/04/11 The one consistent fact this thesis has highlighted is the problem with someone with AS is communication tribulations. This paper has also discussed the social barriers that can affect morale and confidence. So the next question has to be can it break through the defects that hinder the autistic syndrome and actually benefit their learning? The question is an area of research that has still a lot progression to make but many people believe that the arts can actually benefit people with AS. Dr. Melanie Peter (2000) is an author on the affects of Drama on people with AS. She states that ‘Paradoxically … many people with autism find arts activities stimulating, and these occasions also seem to be when they are able to make most meaningful contact with other people’ www.researchautism.net/interventionitem.ikml?print&ra=58&infolevel=4/ 22/04/11 Dr. Peter, a lifelong researcher in to AS suggests that at times people with AS can make meaningful contact with others. This would be in a simulated situation or during an act of play.

Can this be transferred across their learning? Peter continues to develop her theory by explaining that ‘Over time, as boundaries are extended, so they may develop an ability to think more laterally in situations, and with greater flexibility, and acquire a greater sense of resourcefulness. 22/04/11 If the learner with AS becomes more confident with in their learning environment then it would make sense that they could develop more flexibility in reacting to their peers and assignments. It must be made clear that the extent to their improvement still has many factors to take in to consideration, such as the severity of their theory of mind or central coherence and other aspects they may have symptoms of such lethargy from sleep disturbances. Peter’s argument that Drama has a positive effect on developing their overall learning and social capabilities is still important to consider.

For instance if a person can’t overcome personal contact then there are Drama resources to attempt to over haul this sensitive issue. M. Connelly (1983) offers a practical dramatic solution, he says that If a child cannot tolerate contact we will set up group games to help him overcome it.’  Such Drama games are usually normal activities within the college environment so games could be implemented without it seeming alien to any of the learners involved. Such games need to be treated with the normal regard in that they are trust building exercises and beneficial for everyone. Adding to that rule the exercises must be promoted to be supportive to all peers, no matter how they react. This reduces the chances of teasing to an unusual reaction.

Sainsbury believes the idea of encouraging learners to accept people’s different reaction is vital to develop comfort in a learner with AS within the classroom. She comments that teachers should never allow other kids to make fun of other kids verbally and especially talk regularly to other kids about tolerating other differences no matter if these are social, physical, religious etc. Sainsbury, 2009, P.87 If differences are tolerated then an autistic response to a situation should become more openly accepted. Another important factor in Drama is the direction to concentrate on learners strengths. For an example, praising some one’s acting during a musical song when their voice isn’t as strong and therefore encouraging that learner to pursue those areas of quality in more detail than weaker areas to build confidence. Areas of improvement can always be tackled once more confidence is attained. Another interviewee from Sainsbury’s research voiced that my strengths were taken for granted and they rubbed my nose in to my problems relentlessly. Sainsbury, 2009, P.46 Keith Johnstone (1979) is a Drama practitioner who explores improvisation in Drama and ultimately opening up the mind. His work looks to unblock the mind of people that have been blocked by social and educational developments.

His work can explain how Drama can not only help people with AS but also why other learner’s judge people so quickly. He comments that people understand their own insanity (personality traits) but when confronted with other people confuse the person with the role. Johnstone, 1979, P.83

His work on what he calls the “Psychotic thought” that opens up the learner to accepting people’s differences and applications to stimulus response. He encourages learners to open their minds and to accept anything as “normal”. This has to be taken within health and safety guidelines but does make for an interesting approach to a class of very different young adults. With a person diagnosed with AS added to the group this approach can make people accept this person. Johnstone’s study took him to advise that it is when someone’s behaviour becomes unpredictable that the community rejects them. Johnstone, 1979, P.83

Using Johnstone’s ideology as a framework this could assist in the Drama room for developing acceptance to other learners. Sainsbury reminds us of how the learner with AS can struggle with simple activities. I had trouble learning the rules to the games other children played and I often played the wrong way, causing the other kids to avoid me or tease me Sainsbury, 2009, P.80 The teasing can be a massive barrier to learning so simple Drama theory can build staple class objectives that ease that possibility.

A learner with AS can be very successful, with individual and group learning, if the teacher takes in to consideration, the learners strengths. One example could be to utilise an individual with AS to research a project of interest within a group activity or reading aloud in class when their reading is a particular asset. The Autistic mind needs stability and often seeks a rigid timetable of events, so a good organised set up regarding the programme of learning can help overcome these barriers. Turning this in to a strength by demanding a strong schedule of punctuality from all students and expectations can assist the learner with AS. Chandreyee Ghose (2011) writing in the Telegraph discussed Willoughby’s (2011) teaching strategy “We meet the individual needs,” Willoughby said. “We have a very strict schedule. The kids thrive on the schedule, and I think that’s the key to their success.” www.theautismnews.com/2011/02/02/dance-drama-keys-to-life/22/04/11

Returning to Webster’s theories it is an interesting point that many aspects of planning for an learner with AS isn’t that different in structure to main stream learners. Webster deployed headings such as “make the learning relevant and interesting to the child”, “make the educational experience as enjoyable and game-like as possible”, “Allow the child to gain instruction from the maximum possible of sources of information and be prepared to change plans when progress ceases”. Webster, 1980, P.68 & 69

So the principles of planning are similar just more individual differentiation maybe required depending on the extent of where the learner is on the AS spectrum. The final phase of this essay is to draw on one of the major practitioner’s studied during a performing arts course. Constantine Stanislavski (1936) was a Russian actor turned actor who decided in his last years to document his training as a performer and theories as a Director in to three books. These have become staple encyclopaedias for thousands of actors, directors and teachers alike through the twentieth century to modern day. Returning to the original issues with AS Stanislavski offered concepts that teach not only how to act but how to recognise the difference between acting and feeling emotions. To reproduce feelings, you must be able to identify them out of your own experience, Stanislavski, 1936, P.24

It is the work that comes out of this ideology that is important. The workshop will include working both individually and with others to develop an understanding of your own emotions and how they affect others. Through the workshop process the learner will actively comment on how others are acting and how real their emotions are. The Stanislavski “what if” approach that develops from the emotion work is detailed around what if you were someone else? How would you act if you were King etc? Stanislavski adds that “if” acts as a lever to lift us out of the world and into the realms of imagination. Stanislavski, 1936, P.46

It would be possible to delve in to Johnstone’s and Stanislavski’s theories in even more depth and link their systematic beliefs with the classroom and assisting the learner with AS. It is important to remember that however detailed a theory is to assist with educating someone on the autistic spectrum there is never a full proof plan that works for all. I return to Webster’s comments that If behaviour modifiers think there is one key, they are wrong. If there is one key-it is that there isn’t. Webster, 1980, P.16

So from this paper we can safely deduce that autism is a complex disorder that affects both young and old learners. Webster has given a list of fourteen factors that need to be considered when diagnosing a person with autism. His list is extensive and covers issues from self destructive behaviour to tantrum outburst. Lorna Wing has argued that there is a simpler method called the triad of impairments. This concentrates on social, communication and imagination issues. Webster agreed his list could be reduced and Wing’s ideology absorbs the Webster list yet still delves in to the psyche of a mind with AS.

The three barriers all interrelate when learning barriers are concerned and can affect a learner through its education. The social barriers stem from a realisation that they feel different to their peers, a feeling that Sainsbury described as “Alien”. She said many learners with AS will spontaneously compare themselves to extraterrestrials. (Sainsbury, 2009, P.34) This can develop a lack of self esteem and low self worth that can hinder relationships with peers and ultimately teasing and social exclusion. Social exclusion and low self esteem not only reminds us of Maslow’s theory of self actualisation in order to reach one’s full potential but also basic self withdrawal from learning situations.

The essay then discussed the Sansotti debate around “theory of mind”. This linked with Wing’s imagination impairment in that both deliberate the issues someone with AS has with relating to others.

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