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Valuing Difference: Local Programs Help Kids on the Spectrum Connect



Liam, center, plays a game that encourages nonverbal communication at Theater of Possibility.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

By the time Jackie Moffitt was 16, he had transferred schools four times and was longing for a community where he could be accepted as his authentic self — an autistic person. “Autistic people are very dehumanized in our society,” says Moffitt. “They are perceived as being incapable of emotions. People are surprised that people with autism can understand humor or love. They assume that having autism means a lack of desire to connect with other human beings.”

Seeking this connection, Moffitt discovered Theater of Possibility (TOP), a theater arts program based in Seattle and Bellevue serving kids who are “quirky, spirited, or shy or who may have Asperger’s, autism, ADHD, or other learning or ability differences,” as the demographic is described on the TOP website.

Through theater games, improvisation, and role-playing led by TOP Director Lauren Goldman Marshall, Moffitt learned to embrace many of his personal attributes like extreme extroversion and abstract thinking that he’d previously felt pressure to repress.

“A lot of times for kids with disabilities their whole life is about people telling them what they’re deficient in,” says Marshall, who co-founded TOP in the years after her own daughter was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. “With TOP, they are here first and foremost to have fun and create theater together. I’m definitely highlighting relationship skills, but it’s brought in more through the back door. It’s about making kids feel successful.”

Now 21, Moffitt works as a teacher’s assistant at TOP, supporting the next generation of autistic children as they learn and grow while they also reach a level of self-acceptance.

“It’s not just about autistic people needing to learn neurotypical social skills so they can pass in a world that is majority non-autistic people,” says Moffitt. “I think that neurotypical people should also learn how to empathize with autistic people’s perspective and communicate with them on their own terms.”

In the 1930s, Donald Gray Triplett was the first person to be diagnosed with autism. The most recent estimates published by the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network in 2012 identified one in 68 children in the United States as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD does not discriminate. The disorder is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

In recent years, the public conversation around autism has broadened from one focused on “fixing” and “curing” people with autism to a dialogue about acceptance and celebration of difference. The shift can largely be credited to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), a national grassroots disability rights organization run by and for autistic Americans.

In a speech given at Emory University in 2013, ASAN co-founder Ari Ne’eman imagined a world that fully embraced autistic people. “How would our society benefit if we started to recognize that traditional forms of body language like making eye contact or not rocking back and forth didn’t necessarily correlate to the ideals of somebody being more trustworthy or more competent or more fill-in-the-blank that many people presume that they do?” said Ne’eman. “How can we look to what the community of people with disabilities can offer society writ large? How do we look at a vision of worth and dignity that really recognizes all people as being equal, regardless of what they have to contribute?”

Though Moffitt is classified as high functioning, he says that description doesn’t tell the full story: “I’ve been labeled as high functioning, but there are many areas in which I’m disabled.” Moffitt sometimes becomes so overwhelmed by sensory stressors that he yells or flees a room. It wasn’t until this year that he was able to ride the bus by himself, a major milestone. Moffitt says that treatment approaches with the end goal of making autistic people “indistinguishable from their peers” can be traumatic. “People shouldn’t be shamed for not meeting societal expectations for how life should be structured at a certain age,” says Moffitt.

Recognizing that people of all ages and abilities need support, therapists Adam Davis and Adam Johns founded Game to Grow, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle and Kirkland that uses table-top role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons to help people on the spectrum and beyond find greater connection with others.

“There’s a reality within our society that interacting with other people is incredibly important,” says Johns. “We need to be able to understand non-verbal cues and work as a team.”

In role-playing games, players create a character in which to interact with the world of the game. Players work together against the challenges created by someone taking the role of a game master. As game masters, Johns and Davis create a fun, safe space for young people to engage and practice social skills like self-advocacy and collaboration.

“The inclusion model…is really important,” says Davis. “It’s good for everybody to see that there are different ways of looking at the world; there’s not one right way. It’s important to interact with people who look at the world differently because you might learn something about yourself.”

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