How Improvisation Can Help Autistic Kids

How Improvisation Can Help Autistic Kids

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All parents deal with exhaustion, and parents of kids with autism may struggle to communicate with them. Learn how improvisation can help autistic kids.

Imagine that your six-year-old is screaming, lost in the throes of a full-on tantrum. Now imagine that’s his only way of communicating with you.

Parents of kids with autism may go through moments such as this regularly. Others find that their children withdraw or “go off in their own world.”

Children may be unwilling or unable to make eye contact, which is extremely uncomfortable for many people with autism, or to use spoken language to communicate.

Helping a child with autism with their communication can take years of intensive speech therapy coupled with occupational or physical therapy that improves their body awareness, balance, and muscle development.

People with autism live in a world that favors the neurotypical, and this requires adjustments and accommodation on both sides.

One surprising area in which autistic people and neurotypical people can work together is theater—specifically, in improvisation. 

Therapists know that turning therapy into play by using, for example, sensory playground equipment is an effective way to engage kids in fun activities that improve their physical and social skills.

Improv can also be described as a form of play. There are only a few rules, and the games usually end up making participants laugh. Learn about some ways improvisation can help kids with autism. 


It’s often said that the first rule of improvisation is to say “yes, and…” but that’s not always true. Although the “yes, and…” rule is an important tenet of improvisation, you can’t say yes to something and build upon it if you didn’t listen to what was said in the first place.

Improvisation can build listening skills. To “play,” you must listen. Kids with autism can gain practice in listening when they participate in improvisation classes.

Nonverbal Communication

Many kids with autism or sensory processing disorders have difficulty reading nonverbal signals, such as body language or tone of voice.

Improv games require players to pay close attention to not only what someone says (or doesn’t say) but also how they say it.

Kids with autism can learn to identify another person’s emotional state, sarcasm, or exaggeration by that person’s tone of voice. 

This kind of observation doesn’t come easily to many people with autism, who tend to prefer concrete communication devoid of abstract concepts. But in the context of a game, it’s possible to learn that, sometimes, people don’t mean exactly what they say.

Reducing Anxiety

Many kids with autism also suffer from high levels of anxiety. They’re subject to so many demands from school, therapists, or simply the world around them that they can become distraught or frozen with anxiety about what to do.

There are no mistakes in improvisation, only discoveries. People with autism can relax when they’re playing improv games because there’s never a wrong answer.

Even if they say something that’s a total non sequitur, the other players are required to say “yes” to (accept) what they’ve said and build upon it. 

Improv is about accepting the other players’ pretend reality and making something out of that reality.

You can find programs for children and teens with autism at Chicago’s Second City, the University of Indiana’s Camp Yes And, and the SENSE Theatre project connected with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Your local improv theater may run a program, too—it’s worth exploring!

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