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Making friends can be hard for children with autism because it can be tough for them to read other people's body language and facial expressions. Peter Balonon-Rosen of Indiana Public Broadcasting reports that improv might be able to help.
RACHEL MAGIN: You guys ready to do the warm-up?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yep.
MAGIN: OK. Five, four, three, two, one.
PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: This is improv theater class, and the kids are pumped. Here at Indiana State University's psychology clinic, the class is designed for children 6 through 9 with high-functioning autism.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One. One. One. One. Whoo (ph).
BALONON-ROSEN: Eight-year-old Shaw has autism, anxiety and attention deficit disorder. He likes to show off. Here he spells my name.
SHAW GRAF: P-E-T-E-R.
BALONON-ROSEN: How'd you know that?
SHAW: Because it kind of looked like that's your name.
BALONON-ROSEN: Once a week, Shaw comes here to this class created by Rachel Magin, who's a grad student at Indiana State University. The focus - communication.
MAGIN: Through our facial expressions, or through the way our body language shows it, or just the tone of our voice.
BALONON-ROSEN: Magin is measuring how children interpret these things because children with autism...
MAGIN: Are not able to read those cues as well.
BALONON-ROSEN: Body language, recognizing emotions - that's a language.
MAGIN: And they haven't necessarily learned that language.
OK, so here's what we're going to. We're going to...
BALONON-ROSEN: Shaw and classmates choose sentences out of an envelope, pick a random card with an emotion on it, then say that sentence in that emotion.
MAGIN: In that emotion. Who wants to try one?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
BALONON-ROSEN: Sometimes it runs smoothly.
MAGIN: Say it sounds really great in a happy voice.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Yay, it sounds really great in a happy voice. Yay.
BALONON-ROSEN: But like in real life, the way you say the words changes their meaning, so when emotions don't obviously line up with the words it's more of a challenge for these kids. They play a guessing game with the phrase it's over.
JAKE: It's over.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Sad.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Scared.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Happy.
MAGIN: What would have helped him to show that he was happy?
BALONON-ROSEN: Silas, Shaw's 6-year-old sister who doesn't have autism but comes with her brother, she knows.
SILAS GRAF: Yay, it's over. Yay, it's over. Yay.
MAGIN: OK, so jumping up and down, having the voice get a little higher - it's over - and a little louder.
BALONON-ROSEN: Maybe it's something we all could use.
MAGIN: We're going to role-play how to deal with anxiety.
BALONON-ROSEN: But for these children it's especially important. People with autism often find the world confusing and stressful. Shaw plays someone nervous to go to a new school.
SHAW: I think it's going to be scary.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Take deep breaths and you'll not be scared.
BALONON-ROSEN: The idea is pretty straightforward - get children to act out different situations, think about their emotions and they'll be better at doing it when they need to because they can draw on improv.
JIM ANSALDO: It's being recognized as kind of a technology for human connection and communication.
BALONON-ROSEN: An hour and a half down the road, Jim Ansaldo is a disability education research scholar at Indiana University. He runs an improv summer camp for teens with autism and says programs are rare but growing.
ANSALDO: What improv really does is create a safe and fun and authentic environment in which to practice, where mistakes really don't matter.
BALONON-ROSEN: Janna Graf, the mom of Shaw from earlier, says the change is real. She saw that when the 8-year-old, who she says can ramble, introduced himself at a church group.
JANNA GRAF: When he learned about how to stop and pause and take a moment, he said, my name's Shaw, I'm 8 years old, and he actually took his hands and waved it to the next person.
BALONON-ROSEN: So how'd that make you feel?
GRAF: Wonderful because now he's learning how to wait.
BALONON-ROSEN: And it's this kind of feedback that the researchers are using to see how improv classes transfer to real social skills. And so far, they're encouraged by the early results. For NPR News, I'm Peter Balonon-Rosen.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSPO SONG, "FILOMENA")
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