My childhood was dominated by Barbie. She decided much of my schedule; dinner time was pushed back and back until my mother broke the doll’s spell by shutting her away in the DreamHouse and banning me from the playroom. I got over my tears by the entree. I recognize a similar affinity in my nephew’s love of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Ethan, age 2 yrs, plays with Thomas toys

Ethan has hundreds of the cheery faced models, dozens of play sets, countless books and videos: just as I had our playroom floor littered with the plastic damsels and their expansive wardrobe.

This is where the comparison begins to change, however. Ethan is a happy and smart young man in the second grade who experiences life through the lens of autism. Despite our family’s best efforts to introduce other activities, he has not evolved his interests to include other toys.

Ethan, 8 yrs old, enjoys the Thomas-themed train park with his twin brother.

When our family researched this “obsession” to understand its singularity, we found that it is not atypical and all, but rather common across the autism spectrum. As we have begun to search for ways to deter him from this particular fascination, news is spreading that shows interests like these can be a useful tool in increasing skills. Affinity therapy, as it has been dubbed, can improve socialization, communication and the like for children that have challenges because of neurological differences like those associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“Affinity Therapy: What’s All the Buzz About?

This new research centers around Affinity Therapy: using a specific interest–such as in a toy, subject, or music–to frame activities in pursuit of therapeutic benefits in social, communication and/or other behavioral skills. This idea came to attention in 2014 with a NY Times article by a father who stumbled upon a therapy. This unique therapy was based on his son Owen’s extreme interest in all things Disney. After reading this remarkable account of journalist Ron Suskind’s creative approach to his son’s care, I was reminded how innovative and life-changing programs like 4th Wall Theatre’s can be for children with disabilities and neurological differences.

Affinity therapy, or similar programs structured around creatively incorporating interests, can help to build a bridge to skill building for children with special needs. Being patient while embodying the beloved Useful Engine or being brave when becoming a favorite Disney Hero can be a huge motivation for children struggling to make these conceptual leaps on their own.

As I’ve written about before, in every 4th Wall workshop there is a central emphasis on the unique abilities and talents, as well as interests of each participant. I have taught hundreds of students of various ages and ability levels during my time with this company, and just about every one has chosen a character to play based on what they are especially fond of. Allowing each student to choose the character that they will play provides opportunities to connect in areas where they may be having trouble “as” themselves. More often than not, they feel empowered and secure to try new things through the mask of their beloved character.

Affinities as Therapies in Action

Through direct attention to activities that use their interest, 4th Wall instructors have seen students improve in:

  • Social skills
  • Communication and Listening
  • Following directions

I have never needed to encourage students to choose characters that possess the traits I would want them to embody. Perhaps it’s the parents’ encouragement to have positive role models or maybe there is an inherent way to know that something is good; either way, students choose characters that provide a wealth of value and skill lessons.

Social Skills: An Example

Among the most requested female characters, are Elsa and Anna from the movie, Frozen. Are we all familiar?

These two are everywhere!

I think so, moving on!

These two characters provide for opportunities to learn about friendship, being brave, and considering other people’s needs first, among others. The transformation becomes more and more visceral for students as the workshop continues. It’s easier for those playing either role to listen quietly as a friend speaks or to be brave to be in front of strangers. We have seen on several occasions that by the time the winter capes are donned, these “Princesses” can display a marked improvement in a connection with fellow students. The best part about transformations like these, is that they can continue long after the costume is taken off and the bows are given. Students— now full-fledged actors— often continue to process what it was like to “become” a character they have idolized.

Communication & Listening: An Example

I was privileged to teach a one-day workshop at my local library last summer. Libraries love 4th Wall (and we love them!) because the single day workshops allow people of all ages and abilities to drop in on the fun and experience the benefits of theatre. This particular workshop had students from the widest range of ages I’ve ever seen at a theatre day: 5-year old tykes got along well onstage with some older guests visiting from their nearby group home: I guessed a few of the women were in their late 50’s.

As we went through the three rules of theater, “Be Safe, Be brave, and Always Be Respectful”, I noticed that there was a woman wearing medical scrubs watching the events of the group very closely. I did not learn until after the successful workshop that she was the caregiver for the ladies’ group home. She had smiled throughout as she watched her clients laugh together with the group and give voice to different characters. She pulled me aside after the curtain call.

“That was an incredible class!” the caregiver said, beaming, “Thank you so much for the experience, it meant so much to these ladies.”

“Of course,” I said, “we love having people of all different ages. It really makes for new experiences for everyone.”

She then shared something that I still recall as a highlight of my time with 4th Wall,

“The one in the pink shirt, Rose, she never really speaks. She must really like you guys and this class, because she would not stop talking!”

It’s true. That day, Rose was one of the most engaged and talkative participants as she played her chosen role of Rose the Wonder Kitty. Turns out, she is not allowed to have a cat at the group home, but loves them anyway.

Following Directions: An Example

Being the Useful Engine that he is, Thomas the Tank Engine reigns supreme for teaching the skill of following directions. In a recent workshop for Ann Arbor Public Schools, I met a young man with a particular fondness for the blue train. Ian began his experience in the workshop with his eyes focused down at the drawing that absorbed his attention. However, when he learned that he could choose to embody the character in the picture, his focus was on learning how to live up to his idol.

Ian became the first to raise his hand and sat patiently to find out what we as a class would do “soon, but not yet”. He was always eager to help out his fellow actors by reminding them what the group had been asked to do and prompt them when it was their turn. Even the bulky train-on-suspenders costume he wore on the day of the performance didn’t stop him from sitting in the space and listening intently to every direction given about showtime.

Focus on Affinity

I will end with a word from Ron Suskind, author of the article that really launched the affinity therapy movement, and something 4th Wall has truly taken to heart:
“There’s a reason– a good-enough reason– that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities.”