Autism: QUILT: A patchwork of possibilities

Friday, August 12, 2016

Reed Smith and Brandi Burgess of the Autism QUILT at the Wolf Performing Arts Center.


Radnor >> Imagine a theater program designed to allow children and young adults with autism to participate fully, both as actors and audience members.

That idea is becoming a reality at the Wolf Performing Arts Center in Bryn Mawr with it new QUILT program.

“It’s a multifaceted program with a two-year model,” said Brandi Burgess, community education outreach coordinator at Wolf PAC, a nonprofit. “All of our programing is super-inclusive. We make sure our inclusion practices are the best.” While not an acronym, QUILT envisions a “patchwork of possibilities,” said Burgess. “No two children with autism are the same.”

Burgess, an actress and educator, said that she developed the program with help from a 15-member advisory board of experts, including neurologists, therapists, theater artists and advocates. With one out of 68 children diagnosed with autism, those children deserve a program that meets their needs, she said.

Reed Smith, 22, of Bala Cynwyd, also advised Burgess as a Wolf PAC intern this summer. Smith, who is autistic and a student majoring in philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes Barre, is a Wolf PAC graduate.

“Reed has been wonderful to consult with as we’re building this program,” said Burgess. Through community outreach they found there was a need for theater programs for children with autism in grades 3 to 5 and also for young adults in the community.

“We have on-site classes launching in the fall (for both those groups),” she said. They hope to offer “a multitude of opportunities and to see where is the void in services and how can we fill that void,” she said. These classes are scheduled for Sept. 23 to Nov. 11. In the spring there will be other classes offered as they identify needs, she said.

“And we have a traveling program called Community Threads,” she said. “That sends traveling artists out into the community to classrooms focused on neuro-diverse learners, learners on the autism spectrum.”

Currently, Community Threads is working with 12 students at Bright Horizons at Temple Beth Hillel in Wynnewood.

“And we’re in discussions with a few schools,” she said. They are applying for grants to be able to supplement the arts programing in schools, she said. “As you know, funding is tight in schools right now, especially for arts programing.”

Many teachers and administrators are excited about the program but can’t afford it so they are seeking funding to bring it to classrooms, she said.

This year Wolf PAC is adapting one of its performances, “The Velveteen Rabbit” so that it’s sensory friendly, she said. That means toning down the lights and sound and also having a lobby space where individuals with autism can interact with the actors to ease the transitions, Burgess said.

They’ll use “social stories,” which is an “ahead of the time” program to let the autistic children know what will happen during the performance. That performance is planned for 3 p.m. Dec. 10 at Rosemont College. The show will be performed by Wolf PAC students, while other cast members will volunteer in the lobby as support staff, along with trained support staff to help the audience members with transitions.

Wolf PAC also serves many autistic students in its other programing, where they “feel comfortable and supported,” she said.

“We feel excited to celebrate that,” she said. “And we want to make sure we’re offering adaptive inclusion for those experiences… We want to make sure we’re honoring the needs all across the board.

“We want to be able to offer something that adapts to each student where they are,” said Burgess. “Living with autism means you’re adapting every second of the day. The intersection of theater and autism so lends itself to developing those social skills (such as) empathy, flexibility, transitions. Life is full of transitions and shifts and that can be challenging and the theater, (going) from one exercise to another or one scene to another, to have a full picture beginning middle and end, and often it’s changing in the moment.”

Smith has been helping to find email contacts to apply for grants, she said.

He also coined her favorite phrase for QUILT, she said.

“The sense of wonder,” Smith said. “Developing a sense of wonder in our students.”

“Reed has also been great,” said Burgess. “A big piece of this is raising awareness and removing the stigma.” He’s advised on language, as well.

Next year they plan to have an inclusive cast production targeted for audience members with autism.

“Reed has also helped with a high school camp program and developed a movie curriculum to go with the acting,” said Burgess. Smith facilitated the campers’ discussion of the movie “Forest Gump,” with questions such as whether the main character is autistic or intellectually disabled and how should people with disabilities be portrayed in film.

“It really burst open a great conversation about representation of different learners in media, in theater, in film and what they’d like to see in the future,” said Burgess.

“I was impressed with how many of them had their hands raised and were so engaged,” said Smith. “They really did a good job talking through a difficult subject.”

Wolf PAC is also mentoring young adults in their career pursuits and, for Smith, that includes screenwriting and filmmaking. He’s been able to interact with local professionals to get feedback, including John Mullany of the documentary film company Ripples in the Pond Production and Steve Underwood, an actor and playwright. And he also met with Glenn Holsten, another filmmaker.

“We have so many ideas and plans,” said Burgess. “We hope we can keep trying new things and engage in outreach…We want to be a resource center where we can offer research. There so much still so mysterious about autism.” They would like to develop a system of best practices, she said. They’re working with the Gail Stein, a social worker, and Dr. Alyssa Rosen, a pediatric neurologist at The Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) for professional development and would like to collaborate with local organizations serving the autistic community, she said. Rosen provided two days of inclusion training to Wolf PAC.

Wolf PAC founder and Executive Director Bobbi Wolf is excited about the new QUILT program.

“We’re reaching out and making theater for all has been my goal from way back when I taught in the public schools (in Lower Merion), which is our goal here.”

She added, “All children can reach their greatest potential. There is a different fit for each child and a goal is to make that happen.”

“We’re dreaming big,” Burgess said. “We want to get the word out and have families call us.” They are also seeking funding from foundations and corporations, she said. Carol Moog, a psychologist at The Miquon School, in private practice, and the author of “The Autism Playbook for Teens,” is also on the advisory board.

“It’s very exciting and so needed,” said Moog. Acting and theater help children and teens with autism because they often have difficulty reading people’s faces and tone of voice. Acting helps them with decoding, she said. It also helps them interact with other people “in a playful way.” And improvisational theater is also a good way to accept what another person is saying, to “say yes and,” she said. “It’s so valuable for those on the edges.”

While there is some qualitative research on the topic, “one thing we know is it can build tools and it helps people who don’t have much fun with other people (learn how to do that). Theater is a natural playground.” There is also a need for programs for young adults on the spectrum who have aged out of school-based offerings, she said. Both Burgess and Moog will be teaching the classes this fall.

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