Students with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum can benefit greatly from the different perspective on communication and expression that engaging in music and the performing arts encourage. These activities provide safe spaces for young people to experience the give and take of communicative exchanges and explore their feelings.
Music can serve as a medium for communication, much like verbal language, supporting the development of collaboration, spontaneity and creativity. Often, the ideas that students bring to a music session and the recognition that these ideas receive, can build confidence and self-esteem, both areas that many students with an ASD diagnosis struggle with. For some students, their musical ability is an area of strength and enjoyment, and can be not only a timetabled session, but built into their schedule as a motivator.
Coming together in small groups to play music together provides a medium through which students can socially interact with their peers with a joint focus, and they learn turn taking, compromise and group goals during these activities. The LVS Hassocks Blues Band developed such strong bonds and confidence from their musical sessions that in 2015 they opened the show at Autism’s Got Talent on a West End stage in front of 600 people – a daunting test which they not only passed with flying colours but also relished.
Music as a reward, an outlet for expression and a way to build self-esteem now takes the form of weekly tuition for LVS Hassocks students with local company Rok Skool. As well as teaching musical skills, the sessions offer so many other benefits. With sessions for groups of all abilities, music is made accessible to all to encourage students to work together within their band, communicate with each other through more than just words and practice listening to teaching and instruction in a different environment than a classroom.
Drama too can provide additional opportunities for students to explore their emotions. Structured role plays enable working through emotions and feelings, with staff able to support and encourage students to give voice to some of their hopes and fears. Drama can provide students with alternative viewpoints as they take on the role of different characters, allowing them to see a particular issue through the experiences of others. The voice that students acquire through drama sessions can give them the confidence to advocate for themselves in other areas of their lives.
Performing in front of an audience can be a daunting experience, and some students need to be gradually introduced to small audiences initially. Not all students will want to perform on stage, but can be involved behind the scenes, with their contribution being recognised and valued whether it be on the sound desk, painting the scenery, or printing the programmes. This allows each individual to have a key role in a final production.
Experienced staff are required to support students taking part in music and the performing arts, as students may experience strong emotions during these sessions as they become more self-aware. These emotions are not necessarily negative, but positive emotions also need sensitive handling to avoid students becoming over aroused before returning to their timetabled activities.