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"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king".
– William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act II, Scene II

But what Hamlet failed to say was, “The play’s the thing wherein I shall see reflections of myself”.

Art opens closets, brings fresh air and healing. The cleaning process begins when windows are thrown open and fresh air enters a room that has remained unopened for years. Art serves a similar function on the human body and mind.

The duality of Body and Mind is a western concept. In the East, we treat both as one indivisible whole. In days of yore, our theatre artistes realized the importance of theatre as a healing process. The Natya Shastra too refers to the healing powers of Drama. The ‘Koothu’ tradition plays ‘Karna Moksha’ at funerals. This is to help mourners face reality and also go through the cathartic process of grief and grief management.

Drama therapy is the process of systematizing the cathartic and therapeutic effects of Drama on a specific group of people with the intention of healing. It helps people cope with their mental and physical conditions.

On the one hand, watching a performance is therapeutic for the audience, as they identify themselves with the characters on stage and undergo a cathartic experience.

However, most of the performers in my productions have also expressed the fact that after a performance, they felt a change in their attitude to life and their problems. People discover new aspects about themselves in rehearsals and performances. It is in this sense that performers too, experience therapy.

Drama Therapy, a form of creative arts therapy, works on spontaneity, creativity and uses techniques of Drama to explore the human mind. It uses story telling, image making, personogram (sculpturing an image in the human body) and role-play.

Drama Therapy finds its applications in hospitals, old age homes, special schools, prisons and anywhere there is a need to help people to cope with new realities.

How Drama Therapy works
When we narrate a story, we narrate our experiences. Our perspective becomes entwined in the story. When we reminisce, our narration of a story becomes a reflection of personal problems. When an incident in the life of a client is narrated and enacted by a group, the client is able to distance himself from the incident. He gains insights into his life and begins to comment as an observer.

One Application of Drama Therapy
Those affected by the recent Tsunami in 2004, are being administered music, dance and drama therapy. Survivors of natural as well as man-made disasters need creative arts therapy to cope with new realities and there is a dearth of art therapists in the India and the world.

Drama for Autism: coping with Autism through Drama

Parasuram Ramamoorthi

V is a ten-year-old girl from a middle class family in Andhra Pradesh. Her parents are educated and father is an n officer in the Police department. She has twin siblings four years younger. She, the mother says, was normal until one year but now diagnosed as an individual with Autistic Spectrum disorder. When she walked into my room with her mother, she had no fear or hesitation. She sat comfortably for a few minutes and then jumped on to the bed close by. Started looking around for objects, found a moisturising cream, a book, a pen, a key, and started playing with those. Of course in an inappropriate way. She was restless and when I spoke to her she uttered a few sounds. When I asked her name she mumbled and the mother constantly interpreted her sounds. V is a highly motivated roller skater and swimmer. She imitated her mother (dispelling the myth that autistic individuals had poor imitation skills). She was not averse to touch, mother’s and even mine. She smiled when I touched her head. Mother reported that she hugs her siblings too some time. She recited one sloka completely which mother had taught her.

What is the problem then? She cannot understand concepts. She cannot read. She cannot write. She can count up to one hundred. She named all the seven days of the week. She named the months of a year. Yet she has difficulty in comprehending and speaking. Now she goes to a Remedial clinic three days a week where she is given speech therapy.

R is twelve year old, again of middle class parents. He utters a few words and he showed signs of ASD at the age of two and now branded as Autistic. He likes music but hates the sound of mixers, grinders and starting of a scooter. Mother is concerned: how to live without a mixer/grinder or a scooter on the road. He is also comfortable with his sibling.

M is five plus and went to a regular school where the teachers noticed that something was different with M and found him a problem to manage and hence removed him from the school. The parents had problems of admitting in any school and they went to a pediatrician who directed them to a psychiatrist who told the parents: looks like autism but he pronounced it as Otism. The mother a doctor looked in the medical dictionary for the word Otism and did not find any such word or disease. Later guessed that the psychiatrist’s accent misled her and looked at the word Autism and found what t means. Since then it has been an endless journey of raising her son, educating, making him socialize.

All the three instances (with their names changed) are signals to poor awareness about Autism and the help available for such individuals in India. It is really a pity that many parents complained that even doctors /pediatricians were not aware of ASD and teachers in schools had never heard of such a disease. I think we all need to work hard to make people, common people, know what is Autism.

I chanced into Autism research when I was asked to design a workshop module for Autism at the University of Rostock, Germany in 2006 and since then it has been a fascinating journey for myself, knowing the history of the disability and what kind of research is happening, where are the major centers of Autism research and how Drama can help Autistic Individuals. I proposed a tentative model workshop called Soundscape , The use of sounds for communication at a one to one level between the autistic individual and the parent/teacher/sibling.

Drama for autism is concerned with one area of impairment: communication difficulties for Autistic individuals. I believe that if Communication disability is set right then the social skills might improve. The world regards Communication as speaking/writing /understanding at least one language (Mother tongue). So if I cannot speak or write or understand then I am supposed to have communication problems. True many autistic individuals do not speak or write in any language. So my concern in the workshop centered on how we can communicate without a language. Yes we could try Body language, But Autistic individuals are not good at understanding the Body language too because they do not have social skills. I hit on the idea that the sounds are primary modes of communication, which we human used, in the early stages of civilization and as individuals in the first few months of their life. I went back to my actor training workshop modules especially Third Eye Opens workshop and found that some of the exercise could be used for Autistic individuals. Human beings understand sounds and the meanings of sounds much better than language. Children and parents often communicate through sounds; mothers understand the sounds children make and imitate.
We recognize individuals by their sounds. You know some one is up in the next room by the sounds we hear through thin walls. We make sounds all the time. Laughing is a sound. Giggling is another sound. Crying is another. Wailing is one. Even lovemaking is full of sounds. Our life is full of sounds and we make sounds all the time. I exploited this basic truth about human life in the Soundscape workshop and systematized some of the sounds we make, creating almost a Dictionary of sounds for Autistic individuals, which any one should be able to understand. Research should further take me in the direction of almost finding something like the Braille or sign Language which other differently- abled persons use and now universally accepted.

The soundscape workshop begins with warm ups; warm ups though sounds, identifying the sound energy in various parts of the body. We make the same sounds in different pitches when we produce sounds from the navel and from the throat. If you let a sound emerge from the lip and notice the tenor and differentiate it from the sounds coming from your deep throat you will notice how sounds mean different things.The participants feel the vibrations of sounds at different parts of the body like the temples, chest and the navel

Each participant utters a sound and he/she is identified with the sound. I begin saying I am Ram and make a sound BAM something sounding similar to my name. I am remembered by the sound BAM. Each participant repeats the sound and tries to identify the sound with my face /self. It is a good way of introducing one’s self. Some participants hesitate and they keep thinking about what sound to use. I tell them that it does not matter at all. It need not rhyme with their name at all. The whole group starts working with the sounds as a warm up. Sounds commonly heard are Aha /Oho . It is no surprise to me. They are beautiful powerful vibrating sounds. I have used them in the Madurai Prison during my workshops. Those days the participants at the workshop used to greet each other, instead of saying Good Morning, with Aha and respond with Oho
Here for instance Aha and Oho mean the same: greetings.

Vowels and basic emotions
We tend to use mostly vowels to express basic emotions, joy, sadness, and anger, wonder.
This is the case with autistic individuals too. The workshop trains participants to exploit the use of sounds, especially vowels. When asked to express a sound for joy most participants chose Aha, or Oooooooooooooo (long vowel). Vowels are elongated to express joy, happiness and wonder. Similarly when asked to express sadness or low feelings the vowels are shortened. A/oh/ This is also similar to the body gestures we notice when we experience joy or sadness. When we express joy or happiness our eyes open wide and body expands. When we are sad our body shrinks. Fearful situations force us to crouch. When I fear something I may scream but still it will be short screams
Shrieking sounds.

We also use sounds which are not vowels to express happiness: hurray, yummy, yippee
And even long breathing sounds. Use of mmmmm for something delicious and thereby happiness also can be seen in autistic individuals. The process is to identify what sounds children use and relate it to their feelings. Also train them to use sounds, which are intelligible to parents and teachers, siblings and fellow autistic individuals. Though autistic individuals do not use large gestures, though they do not read facial expressions, through sounds we can try to help them to express basic emotions.

Combination of sounds: vowels and consonants: one of the problems the parents/teachers face is the toilet training for kids with ASD. We may try combining vowels and consonants to express the need to go to toilet. Pee as in ordinary people and Similar sounds can be created. We almost build a private dictionary of sounds, private between the autistic individual and the parent/teacher.

Sounds and Objects: Most autistic individuals have a strong visual memory and this can be exploited too. Colored balls may be used and for each color a sound may be created.
Green: nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn
Blue: llllllllllllllllllloooooooooooo
Red: Ddddddddddddddddddddddddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Orange: ooooooooooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaa
Yellow: eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyyyyo
White: iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeee

These are arbitrary sounds. Language itself is arbitrary, every linguist would agree.
So there is no logic or rationale in the choice of sounds.
Distinguishing colors and colored objects become possible through sounds.
For instance there are two objects, White shirt and white ball
How to distinguish the ball from shirt.
Here the creativity of the teacher and parent comes to play. The basic sound for white is: iiee
Add for shirt another consonant: iieemm
Add a different consonant for ball: iieell
In this way we build a dictionary of sounds. It requires patience, concerted effort and some creativity.

Sound of Music and visual scenes
Many theoreticians and scientists declare that autistic individuals lack imagination. Temple Grandin (Thinking in Pictures Vintage 1995 ISBN: 0307275655) speaks of her difficulty to think in metaphors. However some autistic individuals have become painters/artists and poets. Donna Williams an autistic individual has been writing poetry since ten years and she has published many volumes of poetry. Her autobiographical writings are interesting for they provide hope for every autistic individual. Her books Nobody Nowhere, Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the world of autism, Everyday heaven: Journeys beyond the Stereotypes of Autism are recommended for enthusiastic parents and teachers who want to use arts as a means of expression to autistic individuals. David Eastham is another poet who has, in spite of his autistic condition, has published Silent words: Forever Friends. (Trade Cloth, Oliver pate, 1992. ISBN:0969601204) Wendy Lawson is another excellent example of an autistic individual who has written poems that offer evocative glimpses of the asperger experience in her recent volume As Poetry: Illustrated Poems From an Aspire Life (Jessica Kingsley, 2006 ISBN: 1843104180) Lisa Janice Cohen another poet with ASD speaks of how she could connect thought and feeling through poetry. She uses concrete imagery to evoke emotions and she can articulate how she wrote each poem too as she does in her paper “ Poetry, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Emotional Literacy: A Poet’s Experience”(Autism and Representation at the Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Ohio October 2005)

Krishna Narayan has written his autobiography Wasted Talent: Musings of an Autistic (Vite Trade Paper 2003 ISBN: 0970654138) We also know of another Indian Tito Mukhopadhyay has beautifully written philosophical prose and poetry in his volume called Mind Tree: A miraculous child breaks the silence of Autism (Arcade: Trade Cloth 2003.ISBN: 1559706996) The reason I cite so many instances is that we need to convince ourselves autistic individuals may be able to turn themselves into artists of high standards and training in this field is essential. First we need to identify the interest of the autistic individual in the particular field of art. To identify the chosen field we may use some of the methods in actor training. One of the methods I have adopted in my actor training is called Third Eye opens where the actors use all the other senses than eyes to touch/feel/hear/smell and see pictures. This method has been used in many workshops.

The participants relax with music and have enough space and time to enjoy the piece of music. The same piece of music is repeated and during the second time participants are divided into small groups and participants choose a partner to work with. One group will listen to the music in terms of a narrative. This group will try to create a narrative out of the music. Another group will listen to the music and start sketching, drawing or painting with colors. When there are two partners one partner can narrate and the other will draw or paint. There are other possibilities too. One group can improvise on the music ;one group may create a movement based on the Music.

It is interesting to note that many participants enjoyed the music for the sheer joy of music and some were able to see clearly pictures and certain personal emotions also surfaced while listening to music. While choosing the piece of music, care must be taken not to include songs or lyrics. The music should be pure sounds: instruments and I used L.Subramanyan's twin concert. Any such piece may be used. Santoor, violin, piano, flute and soft music will greatly help the autistic individuals.

Music has a healing effect and music therapy centers are available in some hospitals like Apollo Chennai and music therapists may be effectively used in training autistic individuals. Similarly there are movement therapists in India like Tripura Kashyap who may be engaged in teaching autistic individuals /training parents to help autistic individuals.

Can we touch sounds? Yes we can touch sounds. We can see music and touch music. Many autistic individuals have problems with Touch of human beings. They refuse physical touch, hugs and close contact. Music can introduce them to the sense of touch too. They can feel the vibrations coming from a music system. This has been effectively used in a recent Tamil film MOZHI (Language) where the heroine, hearing and speech impaired girl touches waves of music emanating from a music system and begins to respond.

However we need to exercise care in introducing sounds. Loud noisy sounds have to be avoided. Sounds, soft, can stimulate the autistic individuals to hear/see/touch. There is no need to force any individual to engage in any particular activity. Recall the famous words of Henry David Thoreau: If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away”.

Objects and sounds
We can help autistic children identify objects through sounds. Each object may be given a specific sound and associated objects may be given a prefix sound or post fix sound
For instance Table is given a sound say Ta
Tablecloth may be given Ta ta
Similarly if sounds could be added we can even coin sentences.
Combining colors and objects are also possible in this game.

Eye Contact through sounds
Just as we train actors to establish eye contact through trust games we can also help autistic individuals to establish eye contact through sound games. Whenever they lack attention the sound game could be played.
This game is on a one to one basis. Try a sound and attract the attention of the autistic individual. It could be Aha or Oho or any predetermined sound.
The sound need to be positive signal and not a command or negative sound. If the individual catches the attention and come face to face (a distance of one feet between the players in the game is recommended) then repeat the sound and draw the eye contact. If the individual responds then the player can move a little far away, two feet away and still maintain eye contact. If this game works well with one autistic individual, we could even try moving away to another part of the room and make the sound and still establish eye contact. Even cymbals could be used instead of making human sounds for eye contact.

Day to day activities: waking up, brushing teeth, toilet training, eating breakfast, dressing for school, carrying school bags and lunch box, watching TV, playing games in the computers, or video games, listening to music, changing clothes, sleeping all could be communicated through proper training on the use of cymbals or whistles. The individual may be trained to use the cymbal for various activities. One could mean: I need to go to toilet (just an example) two beats could mean I need water
The parents and teachers can build similar signals.

There are interesting experiments happening all over the world on Autism and Arts. Autism Art exhibition at UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute’s Art exhibition encourages children with ASD and conducts an annual contest too. There are music groups and theatre groups working with individuals suffering from ASD. In India we need to establish a system by which we may encourage Autistic individuals to express themselves through art. My workshop Dramautism is a small beginning in that direction.

We need to expose and train our autistic individuals in Music/painting/sculptures/.They may be able to play keyboards, tabla, violin, veena and any musical instrument they can handle. Similarly painting may be a soothing and very rewarding art form for autistic individuals. Our education for autistic individuals must include Art forms and training in art forms of their choice. Art has to be a major subject in the curriculum not an extra activity. We may be able to find an MF Hussain, AR Rehman, Ilayaraja, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, and Hari Prasad Chaurasia among the autistic individuals and it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to identify these talents. Earlier I had stated that many autistic individuals are writing their autobiographies and poems. Our education needs to focus on tapping the creativity of the autistic individuals.

Drama means connecting with people and Dramautism helps me to connect with a special class of people through a primal system of communication. In the beginning was Sound.

Dictionary of sounds
Aha : to express joy/happiness/ to say Good morning
Ddddddddrrrrr: red colour
Eeeeeeeeeyyyyyy: yellow
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeee: white
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeemmmm: white shirt
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeellllllllllll:white ball
Oho : to express joy /wonder and a response to hello/hi
Mm : something nice
Nn : something not nice
Nnnnnn: Green colour
Pee: to go to toilet
Ta : table
Ta ta : table cloth

This is only a simple list and we need to work closely with autistic individuals and create a Dictionary of Sounds which they can use easily and effectively for communication



Theatre masks are fun tools for Autistic kids. The colours in the mask are attention seeking and hence children with ASD may be attracted towards the masks.

One specific use I have found about the Masks is that when children with ASD wear masks they tend to focus clearly and they can be trained to develop eye contact because masks prevent them from looking in all directions. Parents and teachers also may wear masks and play with children so that they get used to the idea of the Masks.

There are animal masks available in departmental stores, toy shops and book shops for children. These animal masks again are of interest to children. We may use the masks in a group where each one can play a tiger, a lion, a dog, a cat and thereby promote creative story telling among the children. Mask excites children and it can induce creativity.

We may be able to enact a story based on the animals. This will introduce some body movements too, like walking like a Lion or trotting like a horse. We are introducing a fantasy world to the Children with ASD. This would largely ignite their imagination and help them to relate to things around them.

Aaharyam Chandra Tharadhi : the sloka from The Natya Shastra tells us that costume, Make up are like the Moon and the stars in the sky. Imagine a sky without the Moon and the stars. How dull it would be. Mask is part of the Aaaharyam and it enhances the presence of the actor. In the case of Children with ASD it can be a booster and image builder. Children with masks may watch them selves before a mirror and feel happy about their image. We can initiate them into the world of self-presence and self-esteem by introducing masks. Masks can make a meaning to their self.

The Hindu God Ganesha is a good example of the Tusker mask. He is associated with Creative Intelligence. Children may be introduced to Ganesha as a mask and even different pictures /idols of Ganesha may be introduced to them. May be that is one of celebrating Ganesha Chathurthi with Children of ASD. The idea that even a God wears a mask may induce them to wear a mask.

The human face is unpredictable whereas the mask is fixed and static. This is a plus factor which Children with ASD may enjoy since they are averse to changing faces. They may enjoy the static predictable masked face. It may initiate them to draw human faces and they may enjoy the FUN of human faces painted.

Another specific use of the Mask is to reduce Hyperactivity. Most Children with ASD run around and do not stop. Masks can help them enormously. In many workshops I have tried the use of the masks and the speed of the children has come down. Since they cannot run fast they tend to stop running. They may remove the mask and try to run. If this can be prevented or if they are again encouraged to wear the mask it will reduce hyper activity.

Playing with mask leads to the idea of painted masks. We can paint masks on the faces Children may like to draw lines, circles by themselves on their faces and the faces of others. Mothers may start using Bindi as a focal point and show children a creative way of using Bindi. A Bindi on the forehead, series of bindis on the forehead, cheeks, chin- all these are creating designs on the human face. We may show them pictures of the Kathakali actor who paints his face as a mask. How different colors constitute a pattern and how they are powerfully rich as visual Icons the ASD children may understand since they are more visually oriented. It is also fun to play with colours on the face. A red line on the forehead : show the children how a red line has changed your face. Some of the colours are also the colours on the costumes of the Clowns and the Fool's Cap. So a creative use of colours may be introduced to the Children.

Play with the masks and masks would play on the minds of the children.

Drama for Autism - DVD

Price: Rs.200. To buy please contact

Dr.Parasuram Ramamoorthi
Formerly professor of Theatre Arts Madurai kamaraj University
Chairman VELVI
10, Ashok Nagar Third street
Madurai 625016 India

© 2004 Velvi