“If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”
— Dr. Stephen Shore, autistic professor of special education at Adelphi University
Some might recognize Aaron Craven as a gifted actor with dozens of film and television credits. He’s also gained respect as founding artistic director of Mitch and Murray Productions, which has collected 17 Jessie Richardson Theatre Award nominations.
Craven is not as well-known, however, for another one of his passions: offering acting workshops to youths and adults with autism.
“The one commonality is they have so much care and support for each other—with their peers,” Craven tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It is really amazing to watch and be a part of.”
Craven isn’t on the spectrum himself, but he has family members with autism. He also dealt with kids with autism when he worked as an educational assistant in schools many years ago. So, the veteran actor and director is aware of the tropes about autism spectrum disorder, a.k.a. ASD.
“There’s this thought that ‘Oh, if you’re on the spectrum, you can’t make eye contact; you have flat effect; you don’t have a sense of humour; you have voice-modulation issues; you’re socially awkward.’ All of those things, I think, are stereotypes,” Craven says.
Citing Dr. Stephen Shore, Craven declares that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. In other words, people experience ASD in a multitude of ways.
“People on the spectrum tend to be put in a bit of a box with all of those stereotypes neatly tied up in a bow,” Craven says. “It’s been my experience doing the workshops that every single student is completely different in the way that they’re directable and in the way that they interact with their fellow actors.”
Craven’s autism literacy informs workshops
“Everybody volunteered, even the behavioural-support workers that were at the venue,” Craven recalls.
He didn’t have high expectations. Craven suspected at the outset that some youths might not be into this activity. Much to his surprise, not a single teen or young adult left over the entire weekend.
“I structured it with a lot of breaks,” Craven says. “A lot of people on the spectrum tend to get a little restless quicker than typical people. So, we got up on our feet and did lots of fun improv games to kind of break it up and not make it a lecture.”
Last year, the Telus Friendly Future Foundation donated $10,000 to fund a season of Acting Atypical sessions. And some of those early participants are still attending the workshops, which are held about every six weeks. The next one is on January 28.
“People on the spectrum respond to positive reinforcement just as much as everybody else does,” Craven emphasizes.
The idea originated after he wrote his semi-autobiographical play, Instantaneous Blue, about a family’s struggle with dementia. As a result of his parents’ experience, Craven became an advocate for seniors coping with impaired abilities to remember.
He noticed flaws in the healthcare system, as well as an overall lack of understanding about dementia.
“It’s a bit of a silent stigma for families,” Craven says. “I kind of took that history of advocacy and playwrighting and I thought, ‘How else can our company address a community—a demographic—that maybe also falls through the cracks and is misunderstood.”
An entry point for neurodiverse people
He knew that some kids were offered inclusive spots in theatre summer camps. But he also realized that many diagnosed with ASD wanted to be with their peers in a program specially designed for them.
“I know how to host an acting class,” Craven states. “I know a lot about the permutations and struggles that people have who are on the spectrum.”
As a result, he devised an introductory pilot project specifically for teens and adults diagnosed with ASD. The Reach Child and Youth Development Society helped him get the word out to families on its list.
“There are many people that are neurodiverse in other areas behind the camera and back-stage,” Craven says. “If this workshop serves as an entry point for them, then that’s a great byproduct.”
One of his biggest thrills comes from witnessing parents’ reactions when they see their child walking out of a workshop feeling more grounded, more involved, and more stimulated than when they entered.
“Seeing the looks and the happiness on the faces of the parents—it makes it all completely worthwhile,” he declares.
There are varying estimates on the percentage of young people who are on the spectrum. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, about one in 36 children has been identified as having ASD. That’s up from one in 150 back in 2000.
The CDC states that ASD is four times more common among boys than girls.
Craven acknowledges the need to promote inclusion for those from diverse racial backgrounds and on the basis of gender. However, he hopes that public and private funders can focus more attention on neurodiverse people, given that they account for almost three percent of the youngest generation.
“Inclusion involves creating specialized opportunities, which address the needs of an underserved population,” Craven states. “We’re very proud of this new initiative, and the participants and families have been thrilled so far.”
Aaron Craven will direct Mitch and Murray Productions’ Canadian premiere of Mike Bartlett’s play, An Intervention. It will run from March 8 to 17 at Performance Works on Granville Island. For more information about the theatre company, visit its website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.