Improv(ing) on the Autism Spectrum

Over the course of two weeks, six students on the autism spectrum and their families took a one-hour improv class. The results were incredible. While there were many individual successes, the areas of empathy, eye contact and imaginative play saw notable improvements through the whole group.
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It's no secret that I feel that improv makes for better teachers, better museum professionals and all-around better people. But in the past few months I've been thinking about the connection between the benefits of improv to students on the autism spectrum, specifically when it comes to social and language development. And in the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of piloting the program with the help of two amazing colleagues, Michelle Lopez and Jennifer Kristen, supportive parents and Queens Museum.

Over the course of two weeks, six students on the spectrum and their families took a one-hour improv class centered on the Neustadt Collection. At the end of the two weeks, we all agreed that the class was too short, but the results were incredible. While there were many individual successes within the program, the areas of empathy, eye contact and imaginative play saw notable improvements through the whole group.


Improv is based on trust. One of the first things I do in every class is pair people up and have them take part in a "blind" walk. One person closes their eyes, and the other keeps them open. The pair connects fingertips, and the "sighted" person leads the "blind" person around, nonverbally, just by the touch of their fingertips.

The students fell in love with this activity from week one, and by week two we were amazed. They were easily interacting with each other, comfortable touching fingertips and being touched by the fingertips -- but most importantly, they were looking out for one another. The idea of the activity is to make sure that no one falls, trips or bumps into another person -- and no one did. Students on the spectrum often have trouble with empathy, but during this activity, they were carefully guiding their parents (week one) and then their peers (week two) around the gallery space.

Eye Contact

At the end of week one, we closed the session with a group activity called "Pass the Clap." I first saw this working with the team-building company run by the theater where I perform improv and thought it would be perfect for certain improv classes, especially this pilot program.

The premise is simple. One person turns to the person next to them and makes eye contact, and they both attempt to clap at the same time while maintaining eye contact. The second person then turns to the person on the other side and repeats the process, passing the clap around a circle. For people on the spectrum, eye contact is often difficult. While some students had to be reminded to "see what color eyes" the person next to them had, this activity was immensely successful. To watch students who generally struggle with eye contact look, connect, clap and continue the activity for a sustained period of time was incredible.

Imaginative Play

Many students with autism have difficulties with imaginative play, and improv is all about imagination. From embodying emotions like "happy," "sad" and "inspired" to posing like the people from the photos on the gallery walls to developing stories about the plants and flowers they saw on the Tiffany lamps and acting them out, the students explored the collection with their imaginations.

One specific example: My student partner told me that I was a tulip and acted out (in front of the whole group, without rehearsing!) a very elaborate story about the wind, a bee taking pollen, and then snowflakes falling on the tulip, all inspired by looking at a decorative lamp in a museum.

What Now?

While the successes of the pilot went beyond these three areas, we all understand that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. We can't attribute these results, especially with this short study, to anyone aside from the six students and families that took part in the program.

But if this and more happened in two weeks -- two one-hour sessions -- what would happen in six? Or in 12? Would the empathy move beyond the class and contribute to a better understanding of emotions? Could the eye contact in "Pass the Clap" transfer to everyday life? We aren't sure, but judging by the parents' responses and our enthusiasm for the project, we sure are going to try to find out.

Special thanks to Queens Museum, specifically the Neustadt Collection and the museum education department. Also, many thanks to Miranda Appelbaum and Hannah Heller from Lincoln Center for their feedback on the program.