LiveBIG Staff, February 13, 2017

Art therapy and play therapy are terms you may have heard before, specifically as they relate to children who have trouble expressing themselves through traditional means.

The use of improv as a therapeutic or teaching technique may be less well-known, but the Psychology Lab at Indiana University is getting some national attention for their work with the theatrical form, specifically with young kids and teens with autism.

Indiana began this work in 2015 with Yes And Camp (the name comes from the technique improv performers use to create a scene). Aimed at teens 13-18 who exist on the autism spectrum, the camp is designed to model communication techniques, social relationships and flexible thinking, all of which can be challenging for youth with autism.

For kids and teens with autism, understanding the feelings and thoughts of other people can be challenging. Many infants and children with autism do not engage in the kind of imitative modeling other children do, which helps to recognize the non-verbal cues of communication like facial expressions, gestures and the like.

Indiana professors Jim Ansaldo and Lacy Alana started Yes And Camp to use improv to teach these behaviors.

Ansaldo says the program is a first in the state and exists in only a few places around the country.

According to a recent report from NPR, doctoral students at Indiana have begun taking the camp?s techniques and applying them to work in classes with young children.

Rachel Magin, a doctoral student here, designed a special class for 6- to 9-year-olds with high-functioning autism. The class explores the various ways people communicate. For instance, "through our facial expressions, through the way our body language shows it, or just the tone of our voice," Magin says.

And the overall idea is pretty straightforward: If children improvise different situations, think about their emotions and how they show them, then they'll be able to communicate more clearly in life.

Though it?s still early in the program?s lifespan, anecdotal reports from the participants in the camp and the classes show the techniques are making an impact.