Andrew Nelson, M.Ed. is an Education Specialist with the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University in the US, and is the co-founder of the International Association of Theatre for Autism ( He also has a BFA in acting. Andrew is the author of Foundation Role Plays for Autism: Role Plays for Working with Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Parents, Peers, Teachers, and Other Professionals, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Here, he shares some personal anecdotes that demonstrate the positive effects that role play can have in the lives of young people with autism and their families.

 I enjoy using role play to support individuals with autism spectrum conditions. It can be truly exciting work, and what’s more, it is an effective tool for helping people with autism navigate often confusing or difficult social interactions.

Recently, I was meeting with a young friend with autism who was starting to experience mild bullying at school. He also had some classmates who were using fun teasing with him, as friends often do. In this particular case he was having a hard time distinguishing between ”fun teasing” and ”bullying”, so we decided to role play to explore the differences and similarities between the two. Along with his parents, we each took turns modeling fun teasing and bullying and the others had to guess which we were using. Then, we each took turns playing the different roles at school: bully, teacher, and innocent student. This experience helped him recognize the cues signaling a bullying situation and how to react in similar real life situations. It was nice to see him discover powerful and safe strategies for this complex issue through role play.

I also find great satisfaction in seeing an educator or parent develop a new perspective or level of appreciation for our friends on the autism spectrum through role play. This month I was facilitating training on sensory supports for autism for a group of educators. We began a role play to explore how vision sensitivities may affect learning. Participants were asked to wear special goggles which fragmented light and obscured vision. I then proceeded to give them instructions to complete a variety of social, academic, and motor tasks. The results were fascinating as each participant struggled in his or her own way to navigate each task. Participants reflected on their experience and said all teachers needed to go through activities similar to these to help develop more awareness and empathy for their students on the autism spectrum.

I never assume that I know exactly how individuals with autism think, feel, sense, or experience the world. My main goal when using role play with parents, para-professionals, and teachers is to get people thinking about things from a different angle and to encourage them to walk in the shoes of the people they support. I have noticed that people tend to smile a lot when working on a role play and I think this is a really good sign.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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