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Autism and Culture Round-up: Social Skills, Theme Parks, and the Royal Ball Run

In our weekly autism and culture survey, we look at how schools are using the craft of acting to teach social skills in young people with autism, a Florida theme park that is making major changes for its guests with autism, and a royal ball charity that will be raising money as the heat rises all month long.

First up, schools across the country are investigating new ways to teach social skills in young people with high-functioning autism, especially as more and more skills become integrated. While the social thinking curriculum has gained practitioners, other schools are looking to the arts for help. New research from Vanderbilt University suggests that drama classes are particularly useful for improving those skills. Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, in 2009 began teaching kids ages 7 through 18 with high-functioning autism about drama at her SENSE Theatre program. As a former professional writer and actor, she was already convinced that “acting is transformative”. At her 10-session, 40-hour program, kids learn traditional drama exercises, like role-playing and improvisation. Paired with peer models—typically developing kids who are slightly older, exceptionally mature, and trained—these children sing, learn the lines to a play, and give a final performance for parents and the public.

“When you talk with a person with autism about something that is interesting to them, they can do it,” Corbett said, explaining that kids with autism have difficulty with flexible and reciprocal conversations. “Their challenge is when you switch topics.” Her curriculum is designed to help students improve in these areas.

Moving down to Florida, the LEGOLAND theme park is experimenting with a new system called social stories that are designed to prepare children and their guardians for every step within the park. It’s basically a cheat sheet meant to remove any sudden stimulation or possible trigger that might come up while at the park. And that’s just the start of what LEGOLAND is working on. They’ve partnered with Autism Speaks to offer training to their staff members on how to best handle a guest with autism alongside the creation of “quiet rooms” designed to provide sensory stimulation in the case your child has a meltdown.

“And you saw the dragon squirted something, you didn’t necessarily see that coming,” said David Brady, describing the popular but scary Dragon roller. Brandy is a spokesman for LEGOLAND whose son is on the autism spectrum. “I guarantee you [the dragon in the roller coaster] something that would alarm my son. Without seeing it, knowing there’s a dragon somewhere in this experience and I’m going to encounter him. And you can’t reason with a 7-year-old that he’s made out of Lego brick.” It will certainly be interesting to see what other parks begin introducing in these elements as the summer season gets underway.

Finally, in a community news story that speaks to the temperatures we can expect for the next few months, a local charity in Iowa called the Royal Ball Run, has earned what is called The Degree Guarantee for the month of June. Basically, in partnership with a local car lot, the Royal Ball Run will receive $20 for every day that the actual temperature is within three degrees of the actual temperature. The Prince & Princess Fun Run will take place Friday, June 24, 2016. The Walk of Heroes & Highnesses, as well as the Royal Ball Run 5K, will take place Saturday, June 25, 2016.