A Road to Emotional Awareness for Students on the Autistic Spectrum Through Performing William Shakespeare
Shakespeare speaks to students on the autistic spectrum. I have witnessed it for 13 years as they have memorized sonnets, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. They identify strongly with the sorrow, the love, the anger, the revenge, and the empathy. I think it is the clarity of Shakespeare’s language that they identify with.
Oscar Wilde says “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.
Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. As a teacher in a post-secondary
transitional program, I have observed that Shakespeare gives students on the autistic spectrum a road to emotional awareness, social interaction and increased self-image and esteem. Common
symptoms of autism are social deficits which include eye to eye contact, body posture, reading facial expressions, exhibiting appropriate facial expressions, lack of empathy, initiating conversation and making connections with other people. In teaching Shakespeare to autistic students, I have found that these students seem to find a voice that they have not found in any other forum. It is nothing short of miraculous to watch otherwise isolated students blossom as they read, memorize, recite and finally perform on stage. Students with varying deficits start to work together, help each other, and support each other. Collaborative learning takes place.
Each student compensates for each others’ strengths and weaknesses. All of the aforementioned is perceived as incredibly challenging if not impossible by the defining traits of their disabilities. I have been teaching for 20 years. I taught neuro-typical students for seven years, and I have taught autistic students for 13 years and continue to do so. When I first began teaching students
on the spectrum and introduced them to Shakespeare, I was absolutely stunned how natural this language seemed to be to them.
A large percentage of neuro-typical students stumble over Shakespeare’s English as they state how impossible it is to understand and they yearn for the modern translation to relate to. On the other hand, something magical happens with students on the autism spectrum. It rolls off their tongues as if they have always been speaking this type of English. They understand the meaning.
They appreciate and feel the beat of the iambic pentameter – the heart of Shakespeare. They are animated, involved, enthusiastic and joyous while we practice for our production. As it seems miraculous, it is actually the work and process of these productions that break down the barriers
that stereotypically define autism. I know these positive outcomes are because we are providing a safe form of expression that draws out the inherent potential in these students.
It is interesting that this transfers outside of the classroom. They organize practices in the dormitory. We practice on the weekends. They would all meet in the evenings and fine-tune the sword fights, the death scenes, the proper intonation and emotion and inflection. They were making friends, connecting and helping each other. Shakespeare speaks to students on the autistic spectrum. I have witnessed it for 13 years as they have memorized sonnets, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. It appears to go against the stereotypical view of autistic symptoms. They identify strongly with the sorrow, the love, the anger, the revenge, and the empathy. I think it is the clarity of Shakespeare’s language that they identify with. They appreciate the lack of agenda that is present in our language today. They express Shakespeare’s language with confidence as they stand on a stage in an auditorium and perform for their peers and their teachers.
I believe the intentional quality of Shakespeare’s language allows the student on the spectrum to quickly comprehend and adapt to his style. There is so much “noise” that clutters modern English. Shakespeare stated in Hamlet “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” I believe the students with autism appreciate words with thoughts and without so much banter and complex connotation. Our goal as a program is for students on the spectrum to learn societal cues, mature as individuals, become aware of their respective deficits and then transfer what they have learned to become an independent, productive citizen when they graduate. This is every person’s right and an incredible challenge to those on the spectrum. How can it be done? Can
it be done? I feel I have found a safe environment where many of the necessary tools to live in society can be learned and embraced and transferred to their daily lives by having students read and perform William Shakepeare. The truth may start with a “mask” as Oscar Wilde states, but I
have witnessed the removal of the mask and seen miracles.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mary Jane Burner is a Credit Course Coordinator with the Vocational Independence Program of New York Institute of Technology. The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) Program.