Big drama – helping children with special needs to act out
Music and drama is bringing children with intellectual difficulties out of their shells
Róisín Lavelle (15) at the end of a drama class session in her home with Michelle O’Grady of the Realta School of Speech and Drama in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The summer of 2016 wasn’t a good time for Galway teenager Róisín Lavelle. “She had a bit of a blip,” is how her mother Marian puts it. Having Down syndrome and being borderline autistic, the 15-year-old finds it hard to cope when she’s out of her routine.
“I was struggling to find solutions and something that would be a turning-point for both myself and her,” says Marian, whose husband John died more than seven years ago.
It was then she heard of speech and drama teacher Michelle O’Grady offering a programme for children with additional needs, on a one-to-one basis in their own homes. Knowing Róisín’s fondness for all things theatrical, Marian decided to give it a try.
She hoped it would be a confidence-boosting experience for her daughter, who had been going to group drama classes but tended to hang back in a crowd, sometimes needing a lot of cajoling to participate.
Having qualified as a speech and drama teacher in 2011, O’Grady drew on her expertise when she went on to work as a special needs assistant for three years at an autism unit in Galway.
The more I played music, he would come out of his shell
And it was a five-year-old boy there who was a big motivation for her to explore further the possibilities of music and drama as a way of engaging children with special needs.
“He was very locked in, in his own world, and didn’t have many words, but I noticed he really liked music. The more I played music, he would come out of his shell.”
She created a playlist for him, always listening out for suitable music to add to it. “I would be driving in my car and I would think that’s a song for him and I would play it for him and his face would light up.”
As she did more research, contacting universities in the UK and the US, the feedback she got was that speech and drama classes worked very well for many people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), especially when conducted on a one-to-one basis.
When O’Grady’s role at the autism unit was made redundant, it was the “kick”, she says, to give it a go. She devised her own programme and started piloting it last September with children with a range of additional needs, before officially launching the Réalta School of Speech and Drama in January.
She remembers being a very shy child herself growing up in Co Leitrim and, at the age of seven, speech and drama classes became an important outlet for her. At one class, she recalls, there was something she couldn’t do initially, “and the teacher said, ‘Michelle O’Grady, you’re brilliant at this, of course you can.’ And straight away I could.”
Today she tries to instil the same sense of confidence in her pupils. Children and adults with additional needs are reminded a lot about what they can’t do, she points out. Having a sister, Leon, with severe additional needs, O’Grady knows well how families too can sometimes struggle to see the positives.
“That is where I come into it – I just see the child.” As for Leon, “it sounds corny but it’s the truth: she is a massive gift to our family; she is very grounding for us and she is extremely content. That is the side you don’t hear about so much.”
O’Grady adapts her programme to each child and always writes a personalised poem for them to learn early on, celebrating their achievements.
“The main aim is confidence-boosting,” she says. “Everything gets better from that.”
Róisín can take a while to warm to people but she took an instant liking to O’Grady when she came to the door of their Salthill home for their first 40-minute session. Five months later, the weekly classes are still going strong; Róisín always looks forward to Tuesdays when O’Grady comes around, and Marian believes it is having a very positive impact on her daughter.
“I see a huge, huge difference in Róisín’s behaviour. One of the reasons I started this was to build up her confidence, and hence her behaviour became better.”
She hasn’t been throwing as many tantrums – we’re not talking about screaming tantrums, but more the “I want it and I want it now” type of demanding behaviour, Marian explains.
“She’s a happier child – more content – and Michelle has brought that out in her.” She still has her “I get what I want” moments but Marian tries to ignore those.
Róisín, who has one older brother, Ben (18), might have seemed confident in the past to an onlooker but she would shy away very quickly from doing things. However, this has changed and, much to Marian’s amazement and pride, she was Mary in the school nativity play last Christmas.
“She stood with a plaque last year but this time she really got into it – and she became Mary.”
The say Marian and I talk, Róisín had come home earlier from St Joseph’s Special School in Galway with a note in her homework diary saying that she had refused to say her prayer.
“She was having a bit of a strop and the strop continued to the house,” explains Marian. But when O’Grady arrived, it was as if a switch had been flipped and Marian, eavesdropping at the door for a few minutes, could hear her daughter doing everything for the visiting teacher.
“I could be there threatening no iPad and no TV and turning off the wifi,” she says, in trying to get that level of co-operation.
“Róisín gets a real kick out of fashion and stuff,” says O’Grady. “So I have purposely a couple of times painted my nails gold, or worn a different kind of top that I know she will appreciate, and it just creates a connection in the session straight away.”
O’Grady is always looking to make that sort of connection with her pupils, but it can take time and a lot of repetition, especially with children of few words.
He was excited – it was acting. That was huge. They are, like, little victory moments
“You will notice little things. I had a boy last week and I took out a book that I know he loves and he started saying the lines before I even opened it – that was really exciting – and he said it with tone.” Three weeks earlier she would have been pointing at a word and coaxing him to repeat it.
“He was excited – it was acting. That was huge. They are, like, little victory moments.”
Breathing exercises to encourage relaxation, articulation and improvisation are all elements she incorporates into sessions, along with poetry and storytelling – “whatever works for the child I’m working with”.
As well as building their confidence, the idea is to improve their social and communication skills. Improvisation can work as a script to help people with ASD cope better in social situations, she explains, and to adjust when things don’t go as planned. Role-plays give them a chance to look at “what ifs . . .”
The big thing about children with autism is that they are highly intuitive, says O’Grady. “You always hear how they are not very good in social situations. But the flip side of that is [while] they are not picking up on social cues, they are seeing into the heart of the situation.”
Although the long-term aim would be to have her own premises, O’Grady sees huge value in working in these children’s homes. For a start, they are at ease in familiar surroundings, whereas going to a new place could cause them “huge anxiety”.
But “it is also to do with helping the parents. I see parents ferrying their kids absolutely everywhere so I am really glad to help in that way.”
For some there is just good and bad, with no in-between emotion
Another important aspect of the work, O’Grady adds, is helping these children to understand and control their emotions, as they can be overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings. For some there is just good and bad, with no in-between emotion.
“So if they are embarrassed it is just ‘I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad . . .’” she explains. “You can do a lot of work around that.”
Although the cost of the €40 sessions does mount up for Marian, she believes the one-on-one nature is particularly valuable.
“The bottom line is it works,” she says simply. And when Róisín is happier the home is happier – because that’s how it is when there’s a special needs child in the house.
For more information on the Réalta School of Speech and Drama, see realtadrama.com.
Sparking talent at Blue Teapot
Galway’s Blue Teapot Theatre Company, which has blazed a trail in providing professional training in the performing arts to people with intellectual disabilities since 2010, now has a “youth wing”.
Three years ago it was approached by a parent from the Galway branch of Down Syndrome Ireland to see if it could offer an artistic programme for teenagers who wanted to do drama but would not, or could not, join mainstream classes.
The result was Sparkle – a programme for those aged 12 to 17, which focuses on group team work, concentration and memorisation exercises as part of an exploration of creativity, according to Blue Teapot’s general manager, Sonja Brodie.
“Sparkle gives participants elementary skills but, more importantly, the confidence to lead a creative life,” she says.
It is also seen as a stepping-stone to the Blue Teapot Performing Arts School, a three-year accredited course for school leavers and adults with intellectual disabilities.
Sparkle runs twice a year on Saturdays for two 10-week seasons and is due to return in March/April. Currently the group has its full quota of 14 participants, but they are always looking for potential new members because spaces become available when teenagers reach the upper age limit or move on elsewhere. Those interested in applying should email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Sparkle see blueteapot.ie
Social skills from social drama
A “social drama” approach to working with young people with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which has been developed with a group in Trinity College, Dublin, is now being successfully replicated elsewhere.
Although the longitudinal study of the original 90-plus group continues, the innovative programme, devised by Dr Carmel O’Sullivan, head of the School of Education, is proving its worth in both inclusive and special education classes for children with a wide range of additional needs.
The method involves participants working together in fictitious contexts, which are constructed to pose problems that can be solved in a variety of ways.
“This develops the young person holistically – it develops their social and creative abilities, but also they enjoy it, they love the work,” she says.
That’s not just good for the children, it’s scientifically important too. Research shows that when people are pleasurably engaged, their brains are much more receptive to learning.
O’Sullivan is “delighted” that a range of health and education professionals who have attended a short training course with her and then gone off with her lesson plans are now reporting very positive outcomes in their work, judged by their own observations and feedback from parents and children alike.
Drama is universal and appeals to all learners, she points out, and this programme gives young people not only an important educational experience, but also an arts experience. It is through the arts that people reflect and develop a lot of people skills that serve them well in society – irrespective of the particular personal challenge they may be experiencing, says O’Sullivan, who is director of TCD’s Arts Education Research Group.
She has just completed books on use of creative drama in early years education for the Chinese market, where there is a lot of interest in her approach. And later this year she will have three books published here for educators working at early years, primary and secondary levels.