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Devising a Play for Children with Autism

Northwestern students create a show that brings theatre to a new audience

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May 10, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold
AutismAutismAutism
The play takes the audience through sensory experiences in an intimate, imaginary underwater setting. Photos by Justin Barbin
The play takes the audience through sensory experiences in an intimate, imaginary underwater setting. Photos by Justin Barbin
The play takes the audience through sensory experiences in an intimate, imaginary underwater setting. Photos by Justin Barbin

EVANSTON, Ill. – An unusual play -- designed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) -- will be performed this weekend on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.

Called “Diving In!” the highly interactive play is the brainchild of School of Communication seniors Anna Marr and Melanie Gertzman. It takes its audience members through a variety of sensory experiences in an intimate, imaginary underwater setting.

“People with autism don’t always get the opportunity to enjoy traditional theatre for various reasons, including the fact that they often don’t like surprises and that it can be hard for them to sit quietly in the dark for a long period of time,” Gertzman says. 

In the case of “Diving In!” audience members were given a video in advance to prepare them for the show and to make it clear that they are welcome to interact with the show in whatever manner they choose.

The audience members -- aged three to 24 -- will be guided through the event by Northwestern students acting as one-on-one adventure guides. Their parents or guardians submitted profiles of their children in advance to better acquaint the Northwestern student guides with their children.

Insistent that every child should have the right to experience theatre and the arts, Gertzman, Marr and the other Northwestern students involved in the production worked with the Northwestern chapter of Autism Speaks U. That organization supports college students in their awareness, advocacy and fundraising efforts on behalf of autism.

“Almost everyone involved in ‘Diving In!’ has a connection to someone with ASD,” says Darcy Coussens, a theatre major who teaches dance to children with special needs. “We’ve worked on this production for almost a year, and we will be thrilled if we see even one child smile as a result of our efforts. I expect we will.”

For more about the show and the students whose passion made it possible, visit Northwestern University School of Communication's website.
Topics: Campus Life