When I was coordinating a Unified Theater program in North Carolina, there was one participant, whom I will call Katie, who, at first, really did not want to be there. She complained about the games, the snack, the skits… really whatever she could find to complain about. Each week, I was sure that she was not going to want to come back the following week. But alas, there she was. Katie happened to have autism, and she was very particular about how things needed to happen, or else she was thrown completely off.
There was another guy in the group, whom I will call Robert, who really got on Katie’s nerves. Robert tended towards self-stimulatory behaviors, typically using a pen cap to soothe himself. Katie really did not like that, and she would often yell, “Robert! Why are you always playing with that pen cap?!” It was interesting to me that Katie had difficulty understanding why Robert often had his pen cap with him, as I thought, “Well, Katie has autism, too. Doesn’t she get it?” (This was a few years ago, before I really understood that no individual is alike, and certain behaviors often exhibited by people with a disability are not exhibited by all people with that disability.)
Katie also had difficulty with our schedule. Rehearsal ended at 8:00 each night, and Katie was very aware of that time. She was constantly asking me what time it was, and at 7:55, she would always ask, “Isn’t it almost time for us to leave now?” I interpreted this as a dislike for our program, and I figured she was excited to leave. Later, I learned that her dependence on schedule was part of her nature, that she really would benefit from a posted agenda, and that she sometimes needed a gentle reminder that she still had five minutes to give us her attention and best performance she could.
About halfway through the season, the students spent a week on Spring Break. When they came back, things seemed to have changed. Robert had spent his week in India with his parents, visiting extended family who lived there. All of a sudden, Katie actually wanted to spend time with Robert, wanting to know all about the animals he saw in India, the places he visited, and the food he ate. Katie turned out to be quite the travel enthusiast! We had finally figured out a way to reach her.
Once we knew what Katie liked (as opposed to what she disliked), we were able to engage her in so many more exciting ways. We rewrote one of the skits to involve a tiger, her favorite animal. We included a travel theme to our plot. She was thrilled to be able to help plan it. Additionally, her artistic skills came in handy when she volunteered to produce the group’s t-shirt design.
As we reached the end of the program, our group was getting more and more excited for the final performance. Katie approached me and asked if I wouldn’t mind if she said a few words about her experience with Unified Theater. I was apprehensive, due to her rough start, so I asked her mom to please help her write a script to ensure that the speech would be positive and appropriate. When the end of the performance came, I introduced Katie to the audience and announced that she would like to tell them about her time with Unified Theater. Katie blew us all away– her speech described her difficulty at first, how she had needed help working out her difficulties with Robert, and how she had struggled with adjusting to a flexible rehearsal schedule. Katie went on to describe how she and Robert had become close friends, bonding over their interest in travel, art, and animals. It was at that moment that I realized that inclusion does not just facilitate relationships between children with disabilities and their typically-developing peers; it can also facilitate relationships between similarly-challenged kids. A culture around inclusion and acceptance gives everyone a place to belong, and friendships form between the most unlikely pairs.
–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer/Editor
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.