Why Social Improv© ?

social smarts

Today, more than ever we have to read and decode social messages quickly.  From quick looks exchanged in a  grocery store lineup to multiple extended interactions around a boardroom table, we send and receive messages at rates far faster than any email, text or IM ever could.  Most of us do the interpersonal decoding unconsciously, in the back room of our subconscious.  They are “neurotypical” or NT.   But some of us did not get easy access to this backroom channel:  non-neurotypcial or NNT.  The NNT person did not get the typical social reader chip loaded onto their neurological “deck”.  There are gaps in their innate reception, interpretation and sending of social cues.

These gaps can AND DO create confusion and distrust in those who have them.  Depression, anger, and anxiety often follow closely.  Often these people retreat into their own, understandable (safer), world.  Friends are difficult to find and keep.  Families and loved ones are often confused and frustrated about how to relate and help. In their safe space, a Non Neurotypical person can dive into technology, popular culture or their special interest to make sense of the larger social world – train schedules anyone?

What are the signals the NNT is missing?  How are they missing what seems so clear to others?  And why does this seem to happen over and over again, without the person learning from his or her experiences?   This mindblindness is one of the major hallmarks of autism/asperger’s and can also affect those with ADD, OCD and other “D”s.   It comes into focus sharply at the very time teens and young adults typically begin to define themselves, first amongst their peer group, then in the wider community and the world at large.   What if you don’t understand that others are having a different experience of the world than you?   How can you relate to others if you don’t understand this fundamental concept of the social world?

Enter Social Improv© Games.  The few basic rules of all improv – building on one another’s ideas, accepting all offers, reading your partner’s unspoken cues – can be taught and address those very gaps in social understanding  that are so confusing.  Improv games can give order and patterns to an often random and mysterious world of people and their language.  Improv CAN be fun.  It is easy to break these exercises down into doable “bites” so players have mastery and develop the confidence to interact fluidly with others.  Participants have an opportunity to observe what interactive success looks like for others and as a member of a larger group.   Over the last 9 years, I have adjusted the focus of standard improv games to relate them to our basic social interactions.   More next time on the five families of exercises in Social Improv.

Take CARE!

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ImprovAbility! at the CASDA Summit

ImprovAbility! at the CASDA Summit  

alana at aoth

The Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA) held their Inaugural Leadership Summit this past March in Ottawa. The overriding goal of the conference was to call for a National Autism Strategy – “One Voice. One Goal.”

I was one of 150 delegates there, representing “ImprovAbility!” The two-day Summit was packed with ideas and possible solutions shared across provinces, agencies, professions and community representatives.

The centrepiece was the National Needs Assessment Survey, published in November 2014. A summary of it delivered by Marg Whelan (on behalf of herself & Jonathon Weiss, who is on parental leave) pulled some sobering facts into focus about the current level of service vs need across the country. Under Barriers to Service, three of the four sectors polled, put ‘lack of resources and services’ at the top of the list. (Caregivers of children 80%, caregivers of adults 73%, and professionals 95%) Self-Advocates, the fourth segment polled, cited not being able to afford services as their top barrier. Capacity building, serving hard-to-reach areas such as the north, and reaching New Canadians were some of the major challenges discussed throughout the conference.

Senator Jim Munsen spoke, sharing an encounter he had on Parliament Hill with a man whose son had autism. This emotional meeting inspired the 2007 paper “Pay Now or Pay Later”. That paper put the employment problems of adults with ASD on the government table.

The Honourable Mike Lake spoke about life with his 17-year-old son Jaeden who has autism. Mike challenged parents in the audience to “Introduce your son or daughter with autism to your MP” to put a face to autism. Kudos to MP Lake for sharing publicly, the reality and the joys of having a son like Jaeden. Fittingly, MP Lake was given a Lifetime Membership to CASDA in recognition of his advocacy on behalf of those with ASD.

MP Mike Lake receives a Lifetime CASDA Membership

MP Mike Lake receives a Lifetime CASDA Membership

Other conference highlights included:

  • A Health Canada presentation about a National Surveillance Project in development, slated to roll out sometime later this year. It should finally give us the Canadian numbers on Autism we still don’t have. To date, we rely on US gathered statistics to shape our practices and policies.
    • Dr. David Nicholas, from The Ability Hub in Calgary speaking on the state of employment supports for Adults with Autism.
    • Autism Speaks announcing new grant structures, with increased awards and more opportunities for partnerships between private sector and not for profits.
    • A reception in the Senate Block of Parliament Hill hosted by Senator Munsen

The second day focused on Promising Practices either on the horizon or already on deck:

  • Integrated Autism Consulting’s Transition to Life Program. Created by educator Patricia O’Connor, it is now being offered at Colleges in three Ontario cities.
  • SpecialNeedsRoadmap.ca created by two Ontario parents this is a website guide to navigating the school system.
  • Meticulon, a Calgary based company offering employment opportunities to people on the spectrum.
  • HALE Consulting from Selkirk Manitoba markets autism consulting services by Kristian Hook, who has ASD.
  • Anthonyatyourservice.com – an Edmonton delivery company employing people with Autism.
  • Pacific Autism Family Centre a multidisciplinary centre in Richmond B.C. slated to be built in the fall of this year.
  • Spectrum Productions a Montreal organization offering film production training to those with ASD. They presented a series of short films, each introduced by its creator. They brought the room to its feet with their creativity, humour and honesty.
  • iSAND, Dr. Wendy Roberts’ integrated services delivery model, based in Toronto.

The next day I attended “Autism on the Hill”, an annual gathering of the families, children and adults with autism on the steps of Parliament Hill.

After speeches by our various politicians and stakeholders, a young man named Tony took the podium. He looked like one of the Blues Brothers, but taller. His was a perfect message to close the event. He told the gathered crowd:

“ I read. I am learning to drive. I am writing a novel (please buy it when it’s out – It’s called “The Dark Side of the Moose”), I work out. I have a job. And I have autism.”

For information on CASDA, and to join this organization, visit their website:  www.autismalliance.org

Take Care!

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“Dis” Functional Language

“Dis”dysfunction junction Functional Language

In a recent blog post, social worker Judy Endow described an encounter with someone in her pottery class who, after hearing she had autism, asked if she was high-functioning or low functioning.  While there were a lot of things I thought about the exchange (click the link at the end to read Judy’s blog post and her wonderful response) what jumped out at me was the uselessness of the word “functionality” to describe a person with autism.

Functional in what way?  Dressing?  Riding the bus?  Going to the washroom alone?  OR  Non-functional in what area? Eating? Banking? Reading nonverbal cues? Playing the guitar?  What are we talking about when we talk about “functionality”?

As Ms Endow points out, there is no diagnostic criteria by which to measure this.  It is not an official label.  And yet, “functionality” continues to be used to describe individuals with ASD all the time.

People use more description when they order coffee! I waited in line last week behind a woman who ordered a grande, low fat soy, no foam, one sweetener, blossoming peach chai tea latte … to go. It took her 30 seconds just to place her order.  And then the server asked for her NAME and wrote it on her cup!!  We pay attention to the details for the things that matter to us. What if we were that thorough when talking about ASD?

What Judy’s pottery classmate was likely trying to ask was “how do I relate to you, given this condition I don’t understand?”.

Often, when people talk about functionality, they are trying to get (or give) a quick baseline on what to expect, as though one word can fast-track them to defining the PERSON who has autism.  Sorry folks.  No fast track.  As they say, “If you’ve met one person with autism… “

The ASD community is broad, made up of many people who have a wide range of strengths and challenges in various combinations.  Today, terms such as “functional/non-functional” just don’t cut it.  It was so much simpler when Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman was the go-to reference to explain it all.

Next time you hear someone identify a person with ASD as high- or low-functioning, look quizzical and ask some questions.  For example “High functioning in what area?” or “What do you mean by low functioning?  What does that look like?”

You may begin a discussion that takes a bit of time but you will learn far more information about that individual with ASD and how it impacts their life.  By asking those questions, you will also remind others that when they identify someone with ASD as simply high or low functioning, there is so much more to be discovered.

Take CARE!

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Related:  http://www.judyendow.com/advocacy/high-functioning-or-low-functioning/

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“Coming Together” with the Beatles

“Coming Together” with the Beatles


Can a collection of out-of-sync social soloists become a functional group ensemble?  Absolutely.

When people who typically have trouble in social groups are taught drama games and exercises, a group dynamic begins to emerge as the sessions progress.  Using specially developed activities, our players come together to solve problems and reach consensus – the bases of good social skills AND good improv!

Everyone has his or her own unique world view that sometimes gets in the way of creative problem solving.  As social coach and teacher, I continually need to check my own biases about how a group might better work together.  I have to be constantly ready to say “yes and” in situations where what seems to be a problem can actually be reframed by the group to reveal a solution.  Here’s an example.

In one of our classes last year at ImprovAbility! *, We had a teen that was hooked on The Beatles.  I’ll call him Richard.  Every reference he contributed in class was about the Beatles, whether it fit the game we were playing or not.  The other players were left out in the cold while Richard consistently derailed our activities with the inevitable Beatles reference.  One of our coaching team’s goals was to move Richard’s focus from The Fab Four to other topics such as music generally… or beetles, the bugs.   And by the sixth session, Richard was making good progress.  With consistent redirection, he was coming up with ideas that built on the suggestions of his fellow players most of the time.

The next class another player, Jack (not his name), brought in a board game he’d bought at a thrift store based on … The Beatles!  “No Beatles!”  I wanted to shout.  No “Love Me Do” or  “I Wanna Hold Your Hand! “  But, Jack had brought the board game specifically FOR Richard.  It showed great perspective-taking on Jack’s part, something he was working on.  And we wanted to encourage that.

So we played the Beatles Board Game.  One of the coaches guided us through the instructions.  The group found a work-around for the full-length version that we wouldn’t have time for.  Richard was over the moon.   And the group enjoyed his enjoyment, offering various degrees of support and encouragement. We all got down on the floor with the game.  Everyone played.  Everyone took turns.  When one got confused, another one helped them out.   The game lasted 15 minutes.  Richard won – to his delight AND that of the other players!   When we finished, we had solved problems together, shared an experience, celebrated Richard’s joy and worked really well as a group.

Had our team vetoed playing the game on the basis of “No Beatles!”  it would have been a valuable opportunity lost. But instead, we created our very own “Magical Mystery Tour” and discovered benefits far beyond the simple win/lose of a board game.

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* ImprovAbility!, is a program that uses Social Improv©, to teach social understanding to teens and adults with learning challenges in this area.  It is not necessary to have a formal diagnosis to join our program.    It’s a great social learning opportunity for anyone who “colours outside the lines”.

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Coming Soon: My Blog!


Coming Soon: my blog! And it will be great!

If you’ve got a question, post away; I would love to hear from you.


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