From the Teaching Trenches: When Special Ed Lands in the Theatre Room


Theatre teachers are all too familiar with the “dumping” that happens in our classes every single year, without fail. We are simply the soft place for those odd ball kids to land when they don’t quite have the rhythm for band/orchestra and can’t draw or paint to save their lives or they are the kid who won’t choose their fine arts elective because they are unmotivated, so someone had to choose for them. Or… the special needs kid who really can’t voice what he wants because he has moderate to severe autism, but his mom says he’s a real “character” and “loves to perform” and the class would be “perfect for him”.

This is what J’s mom said when I called her after the first day of school because her son refused to stay seated and seemed to want to float around the room, flapping his arms and making noises to himself, seeming to have no interest in my class. I was a first year middle school teacher and was literally hired the day before and had not been given much time to prepare or been given any of the required special needs paperwork for any of my students. I was barely able to figure out the computer gradebook system well enough to find J’s profile and parent contact info, which I was determined to find because J was by far the most difficult student I had encountered that day and I was leery of how well he was going to do in my class.

I, of course, didn’t have the paperwork yet to tell me that J had special needs at the time of that phone call, but J’s mom was very understanding and had no problem telling me a little bit about him. He did, in fact, have moderate autism, which explained the wandering, flapping, and noises he made. She said just to gently redirect him to his seat and remind him of the rules in my class. He would forget frequently and I’d have to frequently bring him back. “He doesn’t know any better and doesn’t mean to break the rules, but should still be held to the same behavior standards as everyone else.”  I explained to his mom that J was actually in my largest class of 31 students, and that I was a first year teacher and didn’t feel like I could give him the individual attention he needed. I was honest that I felt inadequate with so many others—several being the trouble making type—distracting me. She said if it was too much, I could certainly just let him do his thing, if I was comfortable with it.

At first, I worked hard to give J the redirection he needed but honestly he exhausted me. I had to redirect when I taught. I had to redirect when giving instructions. I had to redirect when the class was working independently. I felt like all I did was redirect J in that class! I knew his mom said I could “let him do his thing”, if I was comfortable but I wasn’t comfortable! He distracted me, he distracted the other kids, and I knew if he was up wandering, flapping, and making noise in his own world there was no way he was learning anything because his attention wasn’t on me or what I was teaching.

As the school year wore on, I got used to J and so did the rest of the class and, more and more, I did just let J do his thing for the sake of keeping the rest of the class on track. I felt guilt at the end of the day because I felt like I was letting J fall through the cracks. He participated in group activities some times and when he raised his hand he almost never had anything relevant to the lesson to say. It was usually something about a video game he was creating and the characters he was creating for it. I’d let him share and I’d move on. I put 100’s in the book for J because he was giving his best effort given his special needs and that’s really all I could expect.


At around the 4th marking period, we had moved out of performance-based acting content and into project-based technical theatre content.  J, as usual, wandered and flapped around the room as I was teaching. I put the class into groups and assigned each a short script to work with. The assignment for the day was for students to draw a ground plan of the setting of the scene. To do this, students had to understand the definition of “ground plan” in order to draw it from the correct view. Many students had struggled with this assignment in previous classes that day because they couldn’t visualize what items look like from above and translate it to paper.

In my mind, there was no way J could do this. He hadn’t paid any attention to all of the new vocabulary and definitions I had given. How would he know how to draw a ground plan? How would he know to visualize items from above? Could he visualize it? I had to at least try to get him to do it because he had to have a grade and I’d end up giving him 100 for effort, just like I had done with the performance based assignments up to that point. I gave him paper and pencil and had him sit with his assigned group who were discussing their assigned script. However, it wasn’t long before he was up wandering and flapping and nothing was attempted on the paper. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘let’s try this a different way.’

I asked J to come with me to the white board and I gave him a dry erase marker and asked him to draw a ground plan for the scene, which was a classroom setting. He took the marker, nodded and said “Okay. Okay. I can do it.” And he turned to the white board and right there in front of me, he drew a perfectly clear ground plan of what appeared to be a classroom. Visualized from above and everything. It was simple, but it was clearly a ground plan.


As I discovered that day, the way J’s brain processed stimuli and content was through repetitive movement/noisemaking. He was listening and focusing on my lesson in his own way and it was never up to me to redirect him back to his learning. He was already redirecting himself to his own learning.

I never worried about J or felt guilty for just letting him be, ever again. I knew he was learning from that day forward, more than I could even imagine.

J also made it into a play that year. His mom had been right that he was a “character” and enjoyed performing. During performance-based units, he was always quick to volunteer to get onstage and do something! It wasn’t always what I was asking for in the performance assignment, but he certainly kept his classmates and I entertained and he had no stage fright, whatsoever. So, when he expressed that he wanted to audition for the play outside of class, I called his mom and worked out how he might do that. There was a small fireman role in the play—a walk on role with only 1 or 2 lines and I felt like it was just enough for him to handle. I worked out a special rehearsal schedule just for working on J’s part so he didn’t have to be at all of the rehearsals and could be there just long enough to do his part a few times for practice and then his parents would take him home. On opening night, when he heard his cue, he came barreling onstage 100% ready to fight a fire and yelling his lines with such passion and enthusiasm! He was having an absolute blast and his mom just cried quietly from her seat. Her son was able to do what all of the other kids were able to do and I will never forget the look on her face as she watched her child shine onstage that night.

Special Needs kids are sometimes “dumped” on us in our theatre classes for lack of a better place to put them, but it is important to remember that they have just as much to teach us as we have to teach them. These special kids might require a little extra work and thought on our parts in order to accommodate their needs, but they are often more capable than what meets the eye and it is up to us to give them a chance to prove it. The smile on that child’s face and the tears streaming down their parent’s face when they succeed is more than worth the extra effort.

— Anonymous

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