Research stories: on drama, autism and education
Material Voices: intermediality and autism was published in August 2016 in the journal Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance and was downloaded more than 600 times within the first month. It was picked up by the blog PsyPost, and Taylor and Francis responded to the article’s international reach by making it free to access.
In the article, Melissa Trimingham and Nicola Shaughnessy reflect upon their practical drama work with autistic children across the spectrum. Part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, Imagining Autism: Drama, Performance and Intermediality as Interventions for Autism Spectrum Conditions, they explore its possible implications and applications within education, reflecting on video footage of children in the project interacting with researchers.
“There is a danger that art making may be driven by neurotypical agendas with the desire to normalise rather than give space for self-expression and self-affirmation”
Trimingham and Shaughnessy argue that autistic children think and perceive differently to neuro-typical children.
“The media does not stand, we will argue, on the boundary between the child and their experience but is integral to that experience….in terms of intermediality, the child also shares with us a particular creative perception of the world, deriving from and evolving through, for example, the lens of a camera or the encounter with a puppet.”
Autists constitute around 1% of the population. They experience varying difficulties in communication, empathy and social imagination, and they may experience sensory extremes that make their lives very uncomfortable, even painful. They are perhaps are some of the most severely disenfranchised groups in society.
“How do we set up active learning for the autistic child whose very embodying of the world maybe vastly different to our own? How can we support and facilitate the capacity for creative and original thinking which may even be superior to our own?”
The article argues that if we concentrate on addressing difference rather than deficit through arts activities we might significantly improve the well-being of children and adults on the autistic spectrum.
“Whilst we argue for a complementary approach to the task of mainstream education that dedicated teachers and educators pursue daily in the classroom, the researchers share the view that typical social environments (such as schools) do not provide the right keys or intensity for social learning or imaginative development in autism. We suggest… that conventional approaches to teaching autistic children (skills based, low arousal and highly structured and regulated programmes which reduce anxiety to maximise learning) may be usefully supplemented by more fundamentally embodied and creative approaches.”
Published in Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, August 2016.
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Melissa Trimingham is a Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Kent. She has published widely on scenography, the Bauhaus stage, and the use of puppetry, masks and costume with autistic children. As a researcher on the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project ‘Imagining Autism: Drama, Performance and Intermediality as Interventions for Autistic Spectrum Conditions’ she developed scenographies for working with children on the autistic spectrum . Her monograph The Theatre of the Bauhaus: the Modern and Postmodern Stage of Oskar Schlemmer was published in 2011.
Nicola Shaughnessy is Professor of Performance and has published on contemporary performance, applied and socially engaged theatre, autobiographical drama and the intersections between cognitive neuroscience and theatre. She was Principal Investigator for the AHRC funded project ‘Imagining Autism: Drama, Performance and Intermediality as Interventions for Autistic Spectrum Conditions.’ Her publications include Applying Performance: Live Art, Socially Engaged Theatre and Affective Practice and the edited collection Affective Performance and Cognitive Science: Body, Brain and Being.