We all have an affinity for something. Cooking. Reading. Cycling. But if you have ever had the pleasure of working with someone with developmental disabilities, particularly someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you know that one of their “super powers” can be their focus on a single topic.
A student of mine adores Thomas the Tank Engine. In fact, he has thousands of miniature trains in his basement and can name, rank, and list them all with one hundred percent accuracy. Another student of mine had his mother whisper to me before class, “Don’t mention European clock towers.” My face must have showed complete befuddlement since she elaborated, “He has most of the clock towers memorized in Europe. If you mention one it’s a like a roller coaster ride he can’t get off until he’s listed them all.” Noted and not mentioned.
At 4th Wall, we utilize each student’s affinity as a tool to help them be more comfortable on stage while learning life skills. We’ve found that students are more apt to retain, act, and make a habit of new behaviors if they are introduced in a method related to their affinity. This technique, not surprisingly, is called “affinity therapy.”
On the first day of theatre class, a majority of my students are nervous; it’s new, it’s different, and what is this ‘acting stuff’ anyway?? Our favorite showcase for beginners (which you can purchase here) involves the students utilizing their affinities to increase their comfort zones. You like Thomas the Tank Engine? You’re now Thomas in the play. A princess cat? You’ve got it. Spiderman, Spongebob, and Ariel? Check, check, and check. Playing a character based on their affinity allows them to more effectively step into that character’s shoes, helping them to really understand why they are doing what they do in the story. Harnessing their favorite characters also gives them confidence: They know how to act because they know these characters. And because they are no longer “themselves” but “Elsa” they are surprisingly more open to criticism. Let me explain…
One of our first showcases back in 2012 was this Pick Your Character format. A young lady with Down syndrome talked extremely quietly. She was in speech therapy to help her improve, among other things, volume. When it came time to pick her character she was adamant that she would like to be a “brown dog.” We’re all about dreams coming true at 4th Wall, so a Brown Dog she was. She learned her lines word for word, but would not speak above a whisper. It was then our beloved instructor, Miss KK, pulled her aside, “Dogs don’t whisper. They have loud barks. You have to talk loud when you’re being a Brown Dog.” Instant change. She said her lines loud and clear. The next week, her speech therapist asked her mother what the heck had happened. Her mom knew: she felt empowered and free to be something she loved.
What the Research Says
The name Affinity Therapy came into use in 2014, thanks to the research of journalist Ron Suskind. If you are in the realm of special education, you have probably heard of his NYTimes article which launched his book, then movie: Life, Animated. Suskind’s research is all thanks to his son, Owen, and his affinity for Disney movies. Owen did not speak in full sentences until his father “became” Iago the parrot from Aladdin via a puppet when Owen was six. Suskind has since formally researched the topic (find it here) and science agrees: affinity therapy works. But why?
Suskind says, “There’s a reason– a good-enough reason– that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities.” With repetition and admiration, these (often animated) characters become the teachers of how to act in social settings.
Using Affinity Therapy in your show!
Now, does using Affinity Therapy make the plot of the show ridiculous? Sometimes. But we just love it to pieces! My all time favorite combination using our trusty 4th Wall method, involved a dozen characters including Michael Jordan, a giraffe, and Anna from Frozen. They wrote the plot themselves, deciding that Michael Jordan and the giraffe were best friends… because they were both so tall. Duh. And these two best friends would rescue Anna from the Magician Named Sam. You see, dear reader, it actually doesn’t matter who they are portraying or what everyone else is up to. The goal is to introduce them to the theatre, build confidence, empower them, and give them a performance to remember. If that involves Michael Jordan and a giraffe skipping through Gotham City, then so be it. And on with the show!