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Manitoba Theatre for Young People uses drama to help children with autism

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Ben couldn't play pretend.

His autism made it difficult to interact with other kids and play make-believe. But a few weeks after taking a drama class for children with autism, six-year-old Ben called his mother to his room.

"Mommy, look at the moon up in the sky. Isn't it beautiful?" he told his mother, Corrie Purvis. "I reached up there really high and I put the moon there for you."

"I cried like a baby, of course," Purvis remembers. "I just knew we'd found a spot for him where he was understood and he was going to grow."

Ben is one of many kids who have taken the drama class for children with autism through Manitoba Theatre for Young People. The class, Purvis said, is the missing link in her son's therapy -- it teaches him the social skills other provincially funded treatment programs lack.

"All people on the autism spectrum are different but they all share one core deficit, and that's the lack of theory of mind, the inability to put one's self in someone else's shoes," said Demetra Hajidiacos, who created and teaches the program. "In children, this becomes a barrier in play, which becomes a barrier in making and keeping friends."

Hajidiacos is well-versed in applied behaviour analysis, a provincially funded therapy program for children on the autism spectrum. Her seven-year-old son, Peter, has autism. While she said the therapy was excellent for teaching Peter skills he needed, such as communication and academic skills, he was struggling socially.

"It took me a while to figure out that the piece that was missing in my son's therapy program was something I could contribute as a drama educator," she said.

Hajidiacos started a pilot drama program as part of her education master's thesis in September 2010, but after a year and multiple success stories, the program has continued into the 2011-2012 school year.

"The result is parents coming back to me, saying their kids are now playing at recess and their kid has made a friend at school," she said.

Children with autism learn through repetition, so each class is structured, Hajidiacos said. They involve puppets, games, stories and pretending. "We've gone to all sorts of places. We've gone to the moon, we've gone to burning buildings," Hajidiacos said.

On one adventure, each child was given a stroller with a doll and diapers. The class then visited a pretend daycare, but on arriving, they found they were the ones who had to look after the babies. The activity allowed the children to solve problems and learn to work together.

The classes of about eight students are run with the help of St. Mary's Academy students. Each child in the program has an assistant to help him or her with the activities and to help keep order.

"We probably are having as much fun as the kids are. It's a really good time," said Lauren Gowler, a Grade 11 student.

The experience has taught Lauren a lot about the disorder, as well.

"Beforehand, I didn't really know a ton about autism. When you actually get to know the kids, they're super nice, they're really smart," she said. "There's nothing wrong with the kids. Autism is almost like a quirk."

The pretend games have found their way back to Purvis's home.

Before, Ben didn't know how to play with other children. He would sit beside them and maybe imitate them or play inappropriately by flipping cars over, for example. Now, the games that fill the house and the schoolyard are elaborate make-believe stories he plays out with his younger brother and other kids.

"I could be walking through the dining room and he could be yelling 'Mommy, watch out! There's a giant puddle there. You're going to fall into the ocean.' He's got it, and it's extraordinary."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2012 B1

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