Theatre shines light on autism

An experimental program designed for young people on and off the autism spectrum was launched in 2011 as part of the Sturgis Youth Theatre.  The Spectrum Theatre, held in Oct. and Nov. on the University of Northern Iowa campus for six to eight and nine to 12 age groups, was developed and taught by Gretta Berghammer, professor of drama education and youth theatre at UNI.

Spectrum Theatre
Berghammer uses drama techniques for the Spectrum Theatre, a program for youth on and off the autism spectrum.

The program provided drama experiences to best support the development of pretend play, social interaction and nonverbal behaviors in children with autism.

Berghammer became interested in working with children with autism after seeing spectrum-specific classes at the Omaha Children's Theatre. During a five-month professional development assignment (PDA), she experimented with ways of using drama techniques in support of a variety of spectrum behaviors. These behaviors can include delayed speech, lack of eye contact, repetitive physical motion or language, no interest in spontaneous play and obsession with a single topic or object.

"Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and to different extents," Berghammer explained. "A significant challenge for both parents and educators is that no two children on the autism spectrum have the same needs."

During her PDA, Berghammer offered classes to Cedar Valley students on the autism spectrum, ranging in age from six to 12, through several continuing programs, which include Exceptional Persons, Inc., Highland Elementary School in Waterloo and the ASPIRE program in Dubuque.

The results of her work have been exciting and encouraging, according to Berghammer. Nonverbal participants have embraced pantomime and movement as a way to share ideas, characters and dramatic actions. Role-playing has captured their imagination and helped expand their use of language, gesture and story. Work with masks has helped create a sense of "performer" and provide a framework for their actions and dialogue.

"Perhaps the most exciting development is the social collaboration and interaction among all participants," said Berghammer. "Instead of an environment that emphasizes young persons on the spectrum working independently, the drama programs have provided the opportunity to work within a group or collaborate with at least one other atypical youth."

Berghammer will again be offering the Spectrum Theatre program this fall. For additional information, contact Berghammer at 319-273-2149 or