Improvising Social Skills For Teens With ASD Through improv, teens can tap into their inner comedian while building social-communication skills. See how an Indiana University camp does it. Have You Tried This?
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Have You Tried This?  |   May 01, 2018
Improvising Social Skills For Teens With ASD
Author Notes
  • Rachel Kasthurirathne, MA, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral student in the Speech and Hearing Sciences program at Indiana University. rhopf@indiana.edu
    Rachel Kasthurirathne, MA, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral student in the Speech and Hearing Sciences program at Indiana University. rhopf@indiana.edu×
  • Lacy Alana, LCSW, combines her clinical expertise with her passion for improv theatre and the aerial arts. She has created several innovative therapeutic and arts programs for at-risk youth and youth and adults with ASD. lacylcsw@gmail.com
    Lacy Alana, LCSW, combines her clinical expertise with her passion for improv theatre and the aerial arts. She has created several innovative therapeutic and arts programs for at-risk youth and youth and adults with ASD. lacylcsw@gmail.com×
  • Jim Ansaldo, PhD, is a research scholar at the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University Bloomington. jansaldo@indiana.edu
    Jim Ansaldo, PhD, is a research scholar at the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University Bloomington. jansaldo@indiana.edu×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / Professional Issues & Training / Language Disorders / Social Communication & Pragmatics Disorders / Have You Tried This?
Have You Tried This?   |   May 01, 2018
Improvising Social Skills For Teens With ASD
The ASHA Leader, May 2018, Vol. 23, 38-41. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23052018.38
The ASHA Leader, May 2018, Vol. 23, 38-41. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23052018.38
Picture this: You’re a speech-language pathologist working in a classroom for students with challenging behaviors. The students, teachers and paraprofessionals are on their feet and engrossed in playing “Kitty Wants a Corner,” an improv game in which reading body language and making eye contact are essential to success. There is laughter. There is learning. There is connection. And it’s all thanks to improv.
Improv is often described as theater made up on the spot. It may sound like role-play, but there are no scripts. Instead, students and educators participate in games and exercises that require spontaneous use of social communication skills, such as perspective-taking, reciprocity and interpretation of nonverbal cues.
Indeed, these are the skills that may be most difficult for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). So why not use improv to help them master these critical competencies?
At Indiana University, we train SLPs and other professionals to use applied improvisation to teach and reinforce these social communication skills in adolescents with ASD. Our training ground is “Camp Yes, And,” named for the fundamental improv concept of using team support to create something new.
Held in June and July, the camp is based in two local cities: Bloomington and Indianapolis. It is marketed through several mailing lists and websites, including the Indiana Resource Center for Autism and the Indiana Department of Education’s Learning Connections.
Initially, only local professionals and teens attended the camp, but as word about it spread, professionals and teens have traveled from around the country to attend. Camp is free for all teens. Professionals pay a $75 deposit to secure the spot, and receive a $75 stipend after camp is completed, effectively making the learning opportunity free. The camp provides professionals with a new pedagogical framework and concrete exercises to use in their practices.
“Learning improv has helped me learn new and practical ways to work on social skills that are not ‘set’ role-play activities,” one educator shared after attending the camp.

“I’m not really a flexible person that much, but [improv] really helps me be flexible and listen to other people.”

Improv and ASD
Improv offers an engaging, authentic platform to practice all aspects of social communication, and incorporates a variety of interventions and strategies, such as social skills training, play-based therapy and instructional scaffolding. Other approaches—such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, self-management, peer mediation and video modeling—can also be incorporated.
A key factor in any intervention strategy is motivation, an area in which improv shines. “I’ve spent a lot of time doing social skills groups where we want to teach kids how to use better eye contact, greet people, and take conversational turns, which kids often find kind of lame,” SLP Keegan Koehlinger-Wolf of Indianapolis commented after attending camp. “Through improv games, kids are working on things and doing things I never thought they’d do otherwise. There is a level of engagement that I haven’t seen in your typical social-skills group setting.”
As one teen with ASD reports, “I’m not really a flexible person that much, but [improv] really helps me be flexible and listen to other people.”
The improv brain: Yes, and
Central to all improv games is the practice of “yes, and.” Players make verbal, gestural or emotional offers, which their partners must become aware of, accept and add onto. A partner’s addition becomes a new offer, and the “yes, and” cycle repeats until a game ends (see the illustration below).
Here’s an example of this process: A player starts a scene with an emotional offer, showing fear through body language. A second player notices this offer, accepts it and adds by spontaneously saying, “You look scared of the giant spider in the bathtub.”
At camp, we teach SLPs to coach around the skills the players need to make, accept and add to offers. What if, for example, the second player fails to recognize the first player’s fear? A clinician could point out to the second player the ways in which the first player used body language to convey fear. Also, the clinician could coach the first player to make the emotional offer more obvious, such as through speech, tone of voice or an exaggerated facial expression.
Or perhaps the first player has difficulty accepting “spider” as the fear-inducing item: Coaching could focus on flexibility and accepting other people’s ideas so the scene can move forward.
The “yes, and” cycle mirrors the process of everyday interpersonal interactions. We make spontaneous statements and anticipate that others will notice and acknowledge what we say, adding to it in a way that builds reciprocal, cohesive discussion. By practicing “yes, and,” campers enhance their ability to improvise with others, a skill that is directly transferable to communication and social skills off the stage.
Teaching the teachers
Camp Yes, And is structured as a professional learning experience, providing SLPs with expert modeling of improv games, practice, feedback and coaching. Evidence suggests that this type of professional learning structure leads to more sustained implementation of new practices in classrooms and clinical settings (“Student Achievement Through Staff Development” by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers).
Before camp, professionals receive a self-paced learning module, which provides a foundational understanding for the week. During the camp week, professionals meet for three hours each morning to receive interactive training from the three of us. In the afternoon, all professionals are joined by teens with ASD who attend an afternoon improv camp. This provides a fun camp experience for the teens and an opportunity for the SLPs to apply what they’ve practiced in a supportive setting.
In addition to learning about improv as a way to strengthen social-communicative competence, SLPs also learn how to use improv games as forms of assessment, how to use “yes, and” as a behavioral-management approach, and how to use tenets of improv to scaffold educational, social and emotional learning goals.
“The [improv] experience itself is doing the teaching, and it allows kids to learn in a very natural way,” says SLP Doreen Devitt of Bloomington, who participated in a camp session.

“[Camp Yes, And] just opened me up like an eggshell: just cracking open my true self.”

Try this game
The game “I’m a Tree” is an exercise to teach and have students practice staying on topic, turn-taking, and impulse control.
How to play. Players form a circle. One player steps forward, stating, “I’m a tree,” and posing as a tree. Players are instructed to imagine what might go with a picture of a tree (a bird, for example, or a squirrel). A second player steps forward, stating, “I’m a (bird),” and posing as such. A third person adds another complementary offer, stating, “I’m a (nest),” and posing as that. The first player chooses someone to stay (bird or nest), the group is instructed to imagine an entirely new picture with another object as the starting point, and the game repeats.
Professional notes. Often, Player Three’s offer goes with that of Player One, but not with that of Player Two (because Player Three wasn’t listening to Player Two or wasn’t demonstrating flexibility with their idea). Coach students around how to “yes, and” each other. Also, discuss which pictures the group liked most and why. Often the most-liked pictures contain simple or “obvious” choices, rather than those intended to be funny or clever.
Over the past four years, Camp Yes, And has served approximately 46 teens with ASD and 27 educators. Teens who’ve aged out of the program have taken on leadership roles and continue to attend as mentors to younger students. One teen recently remarked, “[Camp Yes, And] just opened me up like an eggshell: just cracking open my true self.”
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FROM THIS ISSUE
May 2018
Volume 23, Issue 5