Michael Schraeder, the acting chair at KD Conservatory since 2004, recently discovered the benefits acting classes could have for children and adults on the autism spectrum.
The idea came from a father who noticed incredible social skills improvements after his Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) son finished an acting workshop.
Through a collaboration with the not-for-profit Trinity River Arts Center, Social Skills on the Stage was born.
To develop a curriculum, Schraeder reached out to experts at UT Southwestern Medical Center and The University of Texas at Dallas, seeking to learn everything he could about teaching special needs students.
Pam Quarterman, who helps young adults with special needs transition to adulthood at The Segue Center, invited Schraeder to participate in social hour with her students.
“Just being able to hang out with ASD students and chat about their favorite music for an hour was probably the best learning experience I could have had.”-Michael Schraeder
“Just being able to hang out with ASD students and chat about their favorite music for an hour was probably the best learning experience I could have had,” Schraeder said.
The inaugural class of Social Skills on the Stage with five students ages 17 to 24 meets every Saturday. The students work with Schraeder and his co-teacher Sarah Rutan, an alum of SMU’s MFA acting program and a favorite among KD students.
The class uses basic acting exercises to help students get more comfortable with real-life situations that people who aren’t on the spectrum might take for granted. Exercises might be designed to simulate an interaction with a demanding boss or ordering a meal at a restaurant.
Students have been enjoying the class, and their parents have noticed fantastic progress. “It’s really interesting and fun,” said William Weyser, a 22-year-old student. “I find it fulfilling.”
Weyser’s mother, Joan, said she loves seeing the interaction between the young people.
“They really open up when they are on the stage,” she said. “In only four weeks, my son, William, is so much more sociable and calm in public settings.”
Initially, Schraeder was curious: How much could acting exercises benefit people with ASD? But as the class has progressed, Schraeder has developed a bond with his students.
“Having the opportunity to see them enjoy themselves in an environment that they feel comfortable in is extraordinarily wonderful,” Schraeder said. “When I was their age, the theater became a second home for me as well, so being able to share my love for the theater and to pass on its traditions to a small group of wonderful people who are new to it is incredibly rewarding to me.”