CITIZEN MAMA

GETTING ON THEIR LEVEL

Theatre Jacksonville educator meets special needs kids in their comfort zone

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If you’re like songwriter Frank Turner, and you don’t want to sit down or shut up, that’s perfectly fine with Mr. Ron.

Theatre Jacksonville educator Ron Shreve, 29, visits Southside Estates Elementary School’s Communication & Social Skills classes every Tuesday morning. A University of Florida alumnus, Shreve is fluent in “Angry Birds,” “Mario,” and “Ninjago” which, to his young actors, are important lexicons. Shreve remembers the kids’ favorite colors and favorite things, takes tantrums in stride, and keeps even hard-to-engage students centered on group activities.

The idea behind the outreach program, which is funded under the auspices of the arts program Any Given Child Jax, was to bring theater arts to language-delayed students in the school’s CSS classrooms.

Now it’s turned into much, much more.

“They [the students] are coming out and showing their social skills,” says Jill Pensabene, who directs the CSS program.

Interacting socially is no small feat for the children in Pensabene’s program, most of whom have autism.

Autism is a serious developmental disorder which makes it much harder for those who have it to communicate and understand social interchanges, much less participate in them. According to the national advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, the disorder affects mostly boys, up to one out of 42 in the United States. Fewer girls have autism, one in 189. A better diagnostic method is only one factor in the increase of autism diagnoses since the 1990s, according to autismspeaks.org.

While we don’t yet understand what causes autism, we know that genetics plays a strong role. Just last year, researchers at the University of California-San Diego also discovered functional differences in brain connectivity between autistic and non-autistic people, using fMRI technology.

The local organization Healing Every Autistic Life (HEAL) notes on its website that people with autism often present a constellation of other symptoms, including gastrointestinal issues and autoimmune problems. Researchers are also investigating possible environmental causes.

Science has demonstrated the value of positive social engagement fostered in early intervention programs for children with autism.

“It’s all about the relationship-building,” says Pensabene. “Ron has won over even our most challenging students.”

One fourth-grade student in Donna Free’s class is mid-tantrum when Shreve enters the room. By the end of the 45-minute interactive session, which focused on colors, emotion, and symmetry, the fourth-grader is happily assembling a puzzle.

Another knows the answer to the question: “What’s green and has the Illuminati on it?” (A dollar.) Shreve and the child had bonded earlier in the year over the distinctive symbol.

Meanwhile, another student, whose student-focused paraprofessional helps keep his hands busy with blocks, gets rewarded with a Skittle for “show me green.” Later, when the group begins to paint, he remains calm as his blocks are removed — a huge accomplishment for him.

Shreve thanks one child for being patient while another tells him something about the color blue.

Then one of the students in Ms. Free’s class blurts out, “Eggplant!” when Shreve brandishes a bottle of purple paint. The teachers and paraprofessionals in the room can hardly contain their cheers. 

“He’s come a long way,” Pensabene later explains. “He can now tell us how he feels.” That’s a quantum leap for a nearly nonverbal child with autism. She credits Ron for helping the boy develop language about feelings.

“Ron practices with them in a comfortable, perfect setting,” she says. “He asks them, ‘What would you look like if you were angry?’ And the really amazing thing is, he’s teaching them to listen to each other.”

Students are in a familiar place – their classroom – when they work with Shreve. Arts programs that require families to show up at unfamiliar places, by contrast, are less effective because it’s difficult for many autistic children to acclimate to a new environment. “By the time they get settled, it’s time to go.”

But, Pensabene says, the repeated weekly visits from Mr. Ron are different. “You hit that six-to-eight-week mark and you see a huge shift.”

This year’s program started after winter break, and is now in its eighth week, thanks to two generous private donors. Theatre Jax is funded for 24 more visits this year, to occur over the next 12 weeks, and they’re eager to raise funds to keep the program going next year.

“Theater is inherently social,” says Allison Galloway-Gonzalez, chief program officer at Cathedral Arts Project and executive director for Jacksonville’s Any Given Child initiative, part of a national effort spearheaded by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to expand access and equity to the arts for all children.

“Everything about communication and social skills comes through dialogue,” says Galloway-Gonzalez. The goal, she says, is to gently steer the children into interacting while focusing on something fun.

Shreve can take what might otherwise be seen as “restricted areas of interest” in children with autism — angry birds, building blocks, and the Illuminati — and use them as connectors to build bridges.

Galloway-Gonzalez says that Shreve’s techniques break both the students and the teachers out of their routines.

“The freedom can change the dynamic for adults in the room, too,” she says. And while teachers are known to be territorial and skeptical of outsiders, she says the paradigm shift that someone like Shreve brings can be “wildly effective.”

“It’s all about the flexibility,” she says. “You have to be able to shift.”

The rapport that Shreve has built with the students shows in Ms. Byrd’s first- and second-grade classes, too. He greets each child by name as he teaches them the sign-language alphabet, and the sign language for an animal each letter represents.

“Remember the sign for horse?” he asks his young actors. One leaps in and out of her seat in excitement, fingers wiggling over each ear.

She remembers.

“A zebra is a special type of horse,” Shreve says.

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Disclosure: Delegal’s children attended Theatre Camp at Theatre Jacksonville.

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