TCR Program Provides Opportunities for Autistic Children
By Sam Lane, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- A pirate's treasure, a pool noodle octopus, and a television chef.
Those were among the imaginative characters and scenes portrayed by kids during performances in a studio room on an upper level of Theatre Cedar Rapids Saturday afternoon.
The shows represented the culmination of a new program called "Just Right for ME!," which provides local autistic children a chance to work on social skills while learning the finer points of acting.
"We wanted kids to have fun," said Mike Wilhelm, Theatre Cedar Rapids' education coordinator. "It's not different than any other theater class except there's more predictability and structure."
Saturday was the fifth and final session in the summer camp. Each week, two separate groups of children -- a younger group made of kindergarten through 3rd grade students and an older group made of 4th through 7th graders -- spent an hour and a half on activities. The session schedules included everything from story time to "pretend time," where kids can act out certain imaginative scenes.
For the first two weeks of the camp, the sessions' four teachers showed students how to use their imaginations. During the final three weeks, kids rehearsed short skits, which they performed for their families on Saturday.
But beyond activities for the kids, the program provided an opportunity for parents as well. Each weekend while their kids were upstairs, Theatre Cedar Rapids opened a lobby downstairs and provided donuts and coffee, giving parents a chance to connect and talk about the daily struggles of children on the autism spectrum.
Lee Bohn, whose 9-year-old son Tristan participated in the older group's sessions, called the program "great" and said he liked the kids were able to "practice externalizing their feelings in a safe environment."
"He's visibly excited about coming to the activity each week," added Jennifer Bohn, Tristan's mom. "He's really, really affected by it."
She also said the exchanges with other parents were valuable, noting every parent of a child with special needs probably feels the same way. Tristan -- who shyly said he enjoyed performing -- will definitely be back.
The program's organizers plan to hold another session in the fall and hope it continues after that, too.
But a camp like this -- one that's "spreading like wildfire" -- doesn't sprout overnight.
Planning Just Right for ME! took around four months, organizers said. It involved meeting with specialists, attending conferences about teaching students on the autism spectrum, and developing a concrete model.
Wilhelm was joined by James Trainor, a para-educator with the Iowa City school district, Beth Simon, who was recently hired as a 3rd grade teacher in Texas, and Rachel Spina, a who works in a self-contained classroom in Waterloo. Each leader has gained greater understanding through the program, they said.
Something as simple as making sure the mirrors in the studio are consistently covered with curtains made a big difference, Wilhelm said.
"If you set things up, they have to be set up that way each time," Wilhelm said. "It's the little things."
More important than the challenges of the camp, though, was the satisfaction organizers felt Saturday when the kids performed in front of their families.
Trainor said he enjoyed giving kids the opportunity to realize their capabilities. He and the other organizers said they learned never to underestimate a student and to "always assume competence."
"Everybody's got an actor or a comedian or a tragedian inside of them," Trainor said. "Whenever I see that come out, I'm just like, 'Yes!'
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