AIN: Applied Improv Network Conference Berlin, Oct 2013
“Improv and Autism”
When I met little Luka for the first time he shouted: “Go away! I don’t like you! You have buttoned trousers.” and hid in a corner. At that time he was almost five years old, and the mere ability to communicate was an enormous progress in comparison to what doctors had predicted two and half a year before when they wrote a diagnosis on their form sheet, a diagnosis which applies to one out of 110 children in Germany, a diagnosis which leaves most parents absolutely helpless, because it describes a disorder for which there’s no cure – I’m talking about Early Infantile Autism.
As a toddler he wouldn’t want to have his face touched, he didn’t want to be fed, he didn’t keep eye contact, not even to his parents.
How do autists perceive their environment? What is their world like? Is their maybe a way to visit them in their world. Let me invite you to a little journey into the world of an autist.
Autism is a complex of developmental and perceptive disorders. Autists have communicative difficulties, they find it hard to find their way through everyday’s life or to keep up social contact and attachments. Autists tend to be overwhelmed by the manifold impressions of their environment and retreat back to their own little worlds. They calm themselves down with repetitive movements, sounds or words or with rituals.
Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of autism – Early Infantile Autism and the Asperger Syndrome.
As a two year old Luka Döhler retreated in his own world, spinning bowls for endless hours. He hadn’t begun talking, he appeared to be lost and cried a lot. He didn’t want to eat nor to be touched. There was no sign of cooperation, little openness for others. Our reality seemed to be locked away from him. How could we say “And” if there was no “Yes”?
As I said before, when Luka was diagnosed having autism, the predictions of the doctors were pessimistic. In Germany, the standard treatment for autists is behavior therapy, most prominently the so called “Applied Behaviour Analysis – ABA”. In short, this approach rewards desirable behavior of children. Having undergone that therapy many autistic children can learn how to behave appropriately in key situations. However, the problem is that they tend to expect a reward. They may learn how to speak, but they might never learn why there’s a reason to talk. ABA trains, detrains, forms, boosts certain behaviors. Even though mainstream research today considers ABA to be the most successful and most researched autism treatment, it is not unproblematic – language and behavior often tend to be some kind of mechanical, learned, and unspontaneous.
Luka Döhler, however, was lucky. His parents, Christiane and Deniz, were improvisational actors. When they learned the diagnosis, they looked for alternative approaches. Finally they stumbled over “Son Rise”, a US based program which relies heavily on the basis of saying yes. Being improvisers, the two could connect with the idea. They knew that many improvisers have a brighter everyday’s life than others. Just by saying “yes and” and by being open, they experience life as an adventure. Not only onstage but in real life. Our attitude changes our view on the world.
But can parents say “Yes” when their child is diagnosed with autism? “Yes, hooray, our child locks himself away from us! Yes, hooray, my child is overwhelmed by the world!” Is that really possible? Wouldn’t be the normal reaction: “Oh no, how terrible! This must stop! What a disaster! He must become normal!” In the beginning, they indeed had those emotions.
But slowly they learned the new approach: Just say yes to the diagnosis! Thank you, now we know what’s going on, now we can act. Yes, hooray, my child retreats – he’s doing the best he can. Yes, hooray, we accept autism, and we act on it.
When we say yes, we acknowledge the situation, we accept it. As professional improvisers Luka’s parents accepted his offers. They copied him, the span bowls, they slowly joined his world, hence they gave him security. After weeks, one day, Luka would interrupt his bowl spinning, he looked up for a short moment, then returned to his seemingly endless routine. But that shared common moment between parents and son wasn’t the last. Luka emerged again and again from behind his cocoon.
And just like in improvisational theater, there is also an “AND” after the “YES”. When the common moments became more and more frequent, they started to make tiny offers – a smile, a touch, a toy. It was absolutely OK, if Luka refused those offers. Sometimes he would accept, but only after a long time. But whenever he reacted and smiled, when he would agree to be touched without screaming, when he accepted a toy, the parents celebrated this acceptance wildly, and I mean “wild” as in “actors’ wild” which amazed Luka until he joined their celebrations. Positive Feedback and unconditional love let them make small steps.
Luka’s parents found volunteers, many of them were Berlin based improvisers, just like me. By saying “YES”, we joined his world. By saying “AND” we offered him entry to ours. The bridge between those two worlds are love and acceptance. The way is a long walk of many small steps, we went that way enthusiastically with Luka on our side. After he learned behavioral basics like eye contact, talking, playing with others, the journey went on.
Luka’s parents were coached in the US by “Son Rise” program professionals, they found volunteer helpers to join the project, working with Luka in a “Yes room” where everybody (Luka and the helpers) was being trained on a daily basis: Say yes to Luka’s offers, say yes to the visitors, say yes to the common game. The first thing in this constellation is the positive relation towards Luka: absolute benevolence, love, acceptance, vitality and fun.
When Luka experienced a relationship to another person as something positive, he playfully experienced success. The joie de vivre and the trust towards his social environment increased his personal motivation to seek more contact with his counterpart.
In the “Yes room”, Luka had maximum control. He set the timing of growth, he decided when he would open himself. Time and again we made offers to join our world or visited his. We sometimes had wishes but we left any expectations behind. Luka expanded his limits, trained his flexibility and social competences.
For about three years I was a coach in the team which the parents called “Au ja!”. I saw how Luka made more and more progress just by playing with us. In the beginning, Luka wouldn’t allow me to move or talk. I learned to be happy with it, dropping any expectations. Quickly Luka found our weak points. Sometimes he would test how we would react: “You stink! I don’t like you! You must leave!” In situations like these we apologized and explained that we would stay a little more, trying to find together a solution.
Soon Luka agreed on many volunteers. He trusted those lively people who romped about the room, who sang and danced or played his strange amusing games. I spent hours sticking plastic stars into the openings between the floor boards and to pick them out again. Games like these served his focusing. We felt that Luka uses games like these to recharge his batteries. But since we did everything together or at least next to each other, all the spinning, floor scratching, picking, knocking became a game between the two of us. We were totally absorbed by a game called “Pick the paperclip out of the hole.” Reason told me: “This will never work out. It just makes no sense.” But by saying yes, I let Luka’s game become my own game. And when after many, many attempts, we finally retrieved the paperclip, Luka threw it immediately back in, and the game started anew. We built obstacle courses and fantasy cities, we drew treasure maps, created songs and stories. Luka joined all of that wholeheartedly. And so did I.
I’m working as an improviser and improv teacher. To work with Luka has changed my approach in many ways. In 2009 I had a job as a theater therapist in a clinic for traumatized men and women. For most of the participants the theater therapy was just another thing they had to do in order to kill time. So when entering the room, some would say: “I can’t participate today.” Or “I don’t feel like doing anything today.” How could I deal with those people? I refused to let the negative situation control my mind or wellbeing. Instead, I tried to create a “Yes-room” atmosphere by letting them be as they were. It was perfectly OK for me. And this mind set allowed me to be open enough to invite them to join the games: I am playing, I invite you to join me. I accept you, and I even accept your No.”
Instead of playing usual theater games in adapted them, simplified them, made them as attractive as possible. I invited the clients into new fantasy worlds, and they felt that nothing is embarrassing about it. I widened my methodic and didactical approach by embracing every new situation. The theater improv classes became more and more improvised, depending on the people in the room and the general atmosphere.
Even my work on stage was influenced by my work with Luka. It widened my options by embracing every new situation. Once in three months our ensemble Foxy Freestyle invites professionals, but also amateurs and absolute beginners on stage to perform with us. As you can imagine, especially newbies are often very nervous. Our attitude is: The more nervous they are, the more it is our job to let them shine.
Luka’s parents Christiane and Deniz Döhler, took the challenge that was presented to them by the diagnosis auf autism. Not only did they open doors for their child, they also spread enthusiasm about working with this special child. Everybody who worked with Luka grew with him. Christiane and Deniz founded the association “Au ja” which teaches parents of autistic children. Neither the American “Son Rise” program nor the German “Au ja” approach are not recognized in Germany as serious ways of treating autistic children. Not yet.
Let me finish by telling you that Luka is now nine years old. He visits a regular school, he plays basketball with the kid’s team of Alba Berlin. And he keeps on discovering the big and small miracles of this world.