Making Movies, Making Friends
Pamela LePage, Ph.D.
We know that children on the spectrum have trouble with social skills, but how do we to teach children with ASD to interact and make friends? Every child is different, so there is no magic formula. And, children’s needs change throughout their young lives. Strategies that are helpful when a child is 4 years old are not going to work when he is 12 years old. During each phase of a child’s life he will need new social experiences that will move him forward in his development. Some young children may need strict behavioral interventions. Others may need social skills classes to gain basic information about interpersonal interactions. Others may need to attend a program where they have the chance to talk about how they feel and understand how typically developing children interact.
At Autism Social Connection we use arts-based groups to help children develop social skills and make friends. It is a naturalistic play-based program, but this kind of program is not just all fun and games. Naturalistic play-based programs have a research base for improving social skills in children with autism (National Autism Center, 2009).
At ASC, we have had music groups, drumming circles, light and shadow puppet groups, drama groups, different types of animation, including Claymation, and also more traditional art classes. But, certainly the film groups have been the most popular and the most successful. They have attracted many children to the Center and more children have stayed with these groups longer than any others.
Filmmaking represents the perfect type of program for children with ASD and their typically developing peers. First, children with ASD need to have fun with their friends, this is something many are missing in their lives and it is so important. Second, children need a project to work on together, a goal, something they can produce together. Otherwise, they will get bored doing the same thing day in and day out with no tangible reward. Children also want to be creative and express themselves; our experience has been that the children spend a lot of time laughing while shooting their short films, many of which are funny movies. In addition, making films helps children learn in other areas, such as writing (scripts), acting, art, and technology. Finally, Film groups provide structure for children and the perfect venue for working on socialization.
There are many ways filmmaking helps children learn to socialize and to make friends. The only way to learn some skills is experientially. It is possible to watch 100 videos on how to swim, but if you never jump in a pool, you will never learn to swim. To learn to be a friend, you have to make a friend and feel the connection. For example, kids should learn that friends fight, make up, and then fight again. Many of these children have experienced losing friends due to unresolved conflicts, or other reasons unclear to them. Through facilitation, students are guided to re-build relationships through effective communication.
Building Social Skills
But, beyond learning to interact with friends by making friends, facilitators also find ways to reinforce social skills. For example, once when a group of boys were filming, two actors were asked to walk down a hill and sit under a tree. What these two preteens with Asperger’s did was to come through the gate separately, walk down the hill separately, drop their bags down on the ground on separate sides of a tree and then sit down without even looking at each other. Not once did they look at each other. The instructor immediately asked them if this was the way friends would come down a hill together. In the next shot, one child held the gate open for the other as they walked through and the other naturally waited for his friend to close the gate. The two walked down the hill together, dropped their packs down on the same side of the tree and sat down together. This time the scene looked very natural, like two friends sitting down to talk. That small difference in interaction made a huge difference in determining whether the boys came across as being together as friends or being together yet still completely isolated.
Some special education teachers have used videos to model behavior for children with autism (Bellini & Akullian, 2007). And, according to research, video modeling is effective in teaching social, language and play skills to individuals with autism (McCoy & Hermansen, 2007; National Autism Center, 2009). One way to implement this teaching technique is to show a video of people in various social scenarios acting inappropriately and then talk with children about these scenarios afterward. Researchers suggests that video modeling is effective for individuals with autism because it is highly motivating and can help children focus attention on targeted behaviors, yet it relieves anxieties by removing individuals from the social interaction being discussed (Charlop-Christy, Le, & Freeman, 2000).
When making short films, children also write their own movie scripts and tell stories. By acting out these scripts they are putting themselves in other people’s shoes and getting a sense for how other people might think or feel. They have a chance to use the different voices, tones, facial expressions and body language of various characters. And, many of the stories are about friendships. One recent video was about a group of boys sitting around watching TV shows and changing channels because they are bored. Each channel had a different skit. Another video was a spoof on Lord of the Rings, which was a “Band of Buddies” hero type movie. There are a number of “group of friends” short films, which helped them to think about how friends act and interact with each other.
It is important for these children, pre/teens and teenagers to stick with these groups for a long period of time. For children with autism to feel connected, it takes at least a year or more. Many children have been involved in the film groups for over three years, and children should not only be involved with their weekly group, but also get together outside the Center, which is encouraged at ASC.
In sum, the film groups helped improve socialization for four reasons. First, they are project-based and relationship-oriented so children interact socially while learning other skills. Second, using technology and learning something interesting helps recruit typical peers and retain children with ASD for longer periods of time. Third, movie making teaches social skills naturally through teamwork and video modeling. And, fourth, many children with ASD are interested in movies and it is easier to help children with ASD bond around a common interest.
We hold a movie premiere twice a year at the end of each session where we invite family and friends to see our latest movies. This is a good way to bring parents of children with autism into the Center for interaction and connection. It is very rewarding for the parents and facilitators to watch the children making connections and working collaboratively toward a common goal. For the first time in their lives, many of these children and teenagers are making real friendships.
Dr. Pamela LePage is an Associate Professor of Special Education at San Francisco State University. She has worked as the Mild to Moderate Coordinator in SPED and the Director of the Combined Credential Program. Before coming to San Francisco State, Dr. LePage worked at Stanford University as the Director for the Committee on Teacher Education. She has worked with experts from across the country to understand what teachers need to know to be able to teach effectively. She serves as Academic Advisor to Autism Social Connection.
Bellini, S., & Akullian, J. (2007). A meta-analysis of video modeling and video self-modeling interventions for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Exceptional Children, 73, 264-287.
Charlop-Christy,M.H.,Le,L.,&Freeman,K.A.(2000). A comparison of video modeling with in vivo modeling for teaching children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 537-552.
McCoy, K., & Hermansen, E. (2007). Video modeling for individuals with autism: A review of model types and effects. Education and Treatment of Children, 30, 183-213.
National Autism Center (2009). Evidence-Based Practice Autism in the Schools: A guide to providing appropriate interventions to students with autism spectrum.
For more information, visit www.autismsocialconnection.org
ASC Group videos are published at: http://www.youtube.com/user/AutComTV.
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