In 2014, I followed an interdisciplinary arts project called ‘Songlines’, delivered over two terms by The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It aimed to:
- create an inclusive opportunity for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
- stimulate social cohesion and personal development between two groups of young people made up of fifteen participants each. One group had been clinically diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and one group had not.
As a postgraduate student, I used emerging neuroscientific advances into AS to analyse the project critically and to identify working methods that recognised all the participants on an equal level. I was attempting to find an alternative to similar projects documented in the literature, which had ‘disabled’ impaired individuals by failing to cater for their needs. These unsatisfactory examples continue to stimulate fierce cultural and educational policy debate (Arts Council England, 2013; Segall and Campbell, 2012) .
I found the concept of neurodiversity to be a particularly important advance. Nicola Shaughnessy defines neurodiversity as the alternate composition of neural connections in the brain of an individual with AS, which impacts sensory processing, understanding and communication. Consequently, the individual might also experience an entirely different perception of reality (Shaughnessy, 2013). This alternate experience of the world directly affects the creative outputs they produce. Neurodiversity focusses on these ‘diverse’ talents as autistic ‘differences’, rather than as a deficit of creative ability.
When the participants of Songlines were asked to colour inside the lines of a drawing, the vast range of outcomes demonstrated that the AS group did not interpret the lines as a pictorial boundary in the same way as the non-AS children or indeed the adults instructing them did. The facilitators resisted intervening in the exercise because they recognised that the participants were creating artistic work that reflected the children’s own diverse experience of the world.
In order to explore this further, the facilitators moved away from directly instructing the participants about what to do and started to construct opportunities for free expression. One exercise involved each participant lying on the floor, surrounded by coloured cloths. At this point in the drama, both groups had ‘sailed’ away from an ‘island’ and had been shipwrecked on a beach. After ‘waking up’ the participants were encouraged to explore the cloths freely.
When asked to explain what he had found, one non-AS participant described a piece of yellow cloth as ‘a yellow cloth’. Next, a participant with AS responded with ‘something grainy like sand, like both sides of sadness’. The simple description provided by the first participant surprised one facilitator, who commented that, ‘Their response was so much less creative, because they’re used to being put through a system in school, there’s a right from wrong answer’. Commenting on the feedback given by the participant with AS, another facilitator commented that it’s ‘perhaps just to do with how their minds work. The AS group are just much more open and creative’.
This transformed the way the project was led because the facilitators started to see their own personal interpretations of the work did not match the neurodiverse perception of the AS participants. Therefore, any interventionist strategy by the adults could potentially ‘disable’ the AS participants because they were restricting the work with their own ‘neurotypical’ perspective. The successful element of the exercise was that the AS participants were able to express their unique perceptions, which bridged the gap between their own autistic experience and that of those around them.
How have the implications of neurodivergent theories of mind impacted my teaching practice in the drama classroom?
Now working as a drama teacher in a mainstream secondary school, I use my experience of the Songlines project to create an inclusive environment and to stimulate social cohesion amongst my students with AS and those without. However, emulating the successes of the project in an educational context has been problematic because the widely accepted pedagogical approaches that teachers utilise do not always consider the implications of neurodiversity or other more general advances in neuroscience. We have found some success by re-examining our teaching strategies in order to ensure that students with AS are not unfairly disadvantaged.
One problematic strategy is Known as AfL for short, and also known as formative assessme... (Assessment for Learning (also known as formative assessment)...). This approach is exemplified in the training video entitled ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ (Berger, 2012). In the video, students repeatedly adjust their drawings of a butterfly several times, based on the example of the teacher, until each student’s work uniformly depicts the same image. The video aims to show how every student in the class manages to fulfill the assessment criteria of the task by accurately reproducing the desired image in staggered stages. However, this approach does not cater for individuals with AS, because their work is repeatedly judged against success criteria that does not account for their neurodiverse point of view. In a similar way to the first drawing exercise conducted in the Songlines project, the students might not necessarily recognise lines as pictorial boundaries and cannot reasonably be expected to reproduce the example, as it would effectively disadvantage them.
In the drama classroom, we have historically followed a similar AfL pattern of dictating each stage of the practical work. Now, my colleagues and I facilitate the free expression of our students through dramatic tasks that do not have a pre-determined end result. In a similar way to the Songlines project, we enable students with AS and those without to find connections between their own unique perspectives in response to the task. We assess students on the effectiveness of their collaborative process.
In essence, we are attempting to recognise and integrate neurodiversity in order to provide equality. Our approach is not perfect but a particular strength is that AS students now participate more in group work and the relationships between all of our students have improved. As one student commented, they feel ‘shared ownership’ of the work because they are able to create work freely by responding to each other, rather than imposed assessment criteria. What better way to improve integration amongst our students?