It’s Friday night, and a student in his mid-twenties with short brown hair and a blue T-shirt walks into a class at The Second City theater in Chicago carrying a bag of potato chips. He puts them on the table in front of his teachers—Molly Fisher and Nick Johne—takes out his phone, and starts playing “Let’s Go” by the Cars. A few feet away from him, another twenty-something student, supine and sprawled out across four chairs, is discussing Pokémon and the sequence of Godzilla films with Johne.
After 15 minutes, six other students have shuffled in, all in the same age range, all males. Johne and Fisher ask the participants to form a circle for Zip, Zap, Zop, a theater warm-up exercise, and they encourage students to make eye contact as they “pass” one of the three words to another individual with the quick, decisive motion of one hand brushing against the other, as if mimicking a lightning bolt.
At one point, a student lets out a “Zap!” after a “Zop!”—a move that catches the receiving party by surprise for a moment before he starts the sequence anew, sending a “Zip!” towards a thin, dark-haired student wearing a black fedora.
Johne sees it as an opportunity to chime in. “OK, cool, cool, guys. So, what happens if we get the order off?”
A tall high school student named Nick responds: “We go with the flow!”
“Totally, guys, that’s it. We go with the flow,” says Johne, who passes a “Zip!” to Jonathan, a shorter student with sharp features and a wide smile.
The game is one that the team at Second City teaches to all of its students, and Johne’s response is one that these walls have likely heard during each of the training center’s improv programs. But the words carry particular weight for tonight’s group—eight individuals on the autism spectrum.
While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) manifests itself differently in every individual, two hallmark characteristics are a tendency to avoid eye contact and an inclination to adhere strictly to routine. This exercise challenges both—and the students are only 10 minutes into the class. “For somebody who is on the autism spectrum, improv should be their worst nightmare,” says Fisher. “But that’s the reason why we’re here. It’s not their worst nightmare. It’s something that can be really amazing and really fun.”
“For somebody who is on the autism spectrum, improv should be their worst nightmare. But that’s the reason why we’re here.”
Fisher and Johne met in an improv class Johne was teaching at DePaul University, where Fisher was getting her MFA in acting. Johne has a daughter with autism, Fisher has a background in teaching special education, and they share a passion for improv. They presented the idea of co-leading an improv class for the ASD community to the team at The Second City, and within weeks they launched Improv for ASD with a full roster. The motivation for Fisher was the same one she had experienced when asked to teach improv for a class held at her former high school, where one student with autism wanted to participate.
“I immediately noticed that he was just like all of the other students—he just wanted to play,” says Fisher.
And play might be the definitive word of the evening, as evidenced in other warm-ups like Pop See Ko, an exercise requiring students to call on one another by name and prompt them to perform the “Pop See Ko” jingle, at which point everyone joins for a chorus of “My hands are high, my feet are low, and this is how we pop see ko” before breaking into their own signature dance moves.
Mid-class breaks are long to give students a chance to relax and connect with one another. It’s during this period that Jonathan, the classroom’s film aficionado, starts asking fellow classmates about their favorite movies. He then reports his own, within one excited breath: “Mine is Stranger than Fiction, with Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was released in 2006 and directed by Marc Forster, and it also stars Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, and Queen Latifah.”
In another part of the room, a student with dark glasses, a black turtleneck, and black pants is talking about Disney. “Disney needs all kinds of talent,” he says, writing down the contact details of the brand for me at one point, saying that they need writing services, too.
Jonathan continues to discuss films with classmates, and now everyone in the room pays attention. “I heard that the new Grinch movie came out today about how he stole Christmas, which is a remake of the 2000 version with Jim Carrey which in turn is a remake of the classic cartoon from the year 1966 with Boris Karloff.” This sparks a conversation about the best Grinch movie to date, and within minutes, a diagram is etched onto the classroom board that is divided into three sections with various student initials underneath each: 1966, 2000, 2018.
This type of socializing is why Johne and Fisher decided to hold the class on Friday nights. “We want them to feel like they’re going downtown to take a fun improv class with their friends,” says Fisher. Between the need for eye contact, teamwork, and constant communication, the requirements of improv result in social benefits for any participants—but for the ASD community, in particular, those payoffs are paramount.
“A lot of people on the spectrum take in and handle information, life events, and people in a different way than people who are not on the spectrum,” says Fisher, noting an example of a student coming into class screaming about the Cubs win and how that might be disruptive to someone else. “In our society we have social norms and rules, and when we see people who don’t obey them, we view them as rude or as someone who doesn’t quite belong.”
It’s for that reason that Carmen Augustin, MSW, LCSW, a social worker in Chicago who works with children, teens, and adults with ASD, supports this kind of class for a handful of her clients. “That’s the great thing about improv. There’s no right or wrong; it’s just what you’re bringing to it. You have to be willing to get a little messy.” It’s a lesson that can extend far beyond classroom doors, too. “There’s no straight path here, and that’s liberating. Life is messy.”
“That’s the great thing about improv. There’s no right or wrong; it’s just what you’re bringing to it. You have to be willing to get a little messy.”
After the break, partner scene work begins—tonight, with a focus on object work. It is the crux of the hour-and-a-half class, the culmination of all the work done in the warm-ups and exercises. First, Fisher and Nick act out a scene in a high school classroom, in which Fisher asks Nick for help substituting a class, then there’s a scene with Jonathan and Dan in an apple orchard trying to get rid of a pesky, fruit-eating squirrel. Next up is a scene from a goateed student named Chance. He walks towards the front of the classroom and takes a seat next to Connor, a teaching assistant for Fisher and Johne.
Fisher prompts them. “You guys are in a kitchen and you’re in charge of stirring a big pot of macaroni and cheese for a family dinner,” she says. “Here’s your spoon, here’s your pot. Now let’s stir it.”
Connor forms his hands into “C”s that stretch far beyond the width of his body to mimic the holding of a colossal pot on a stove. Chance follows. Then Connor creates a loose fist with his right hand, hovers it above the pots, and creates a stirring motion.
Fisher asks him what he’s stirring.
“Stir,” Chance says. She asks again.
“Macaroni and cheese,” he says, elongating the “e” of the last word.
“Do you like macaroni?” asks Fisher.
Chance looks up at her. “Yes,” he says enthusiastically. “Good.”
Fisher continues. “Can you make me some bowls?”
Connor guides Chance in scooping out generous portions of macaroni into two bowls before taking a seat at an imaginary table. The student brings a forkful to his mouth, and Fisher asks what he normally does with his food if it’s too hot. He looks at her, then looks at the air in front of him that holds the bite. He starts to blow on it.
As they wrap up the scene, Fisher asks one more question. “Finish this sentence for me, Chance. Mac and cheese is…?”
“Good,” he says, looking directly at his instructor.
Applause from the entire room ensues. Until that moment, it was silent. Chance takes his seat as the next students take the stage, and Fisher pats him on the back. “Great work, buddy. It was really good to hear your voice.”
It’s through scene work such as this that Fisher and Johne have witnessed Chance, a student who has been attending classes with the two instructors for three sessions straight, improve his social skills.
“When we first started working together, Chance wasn’t always as present. But now we can see him having fun in activities like this one, like discovering different ways to stir the macaroni and cheese,” says Fisher. “He knows that it’s a game and that we’re playing together.”
It’s about an hour drive from Chance’s home to The Second City, so every week before they depart, Chance’s mom asks him if he really wants to go. He almost always says, “Yes.” When he does arrive to class, Fisher says it’s with a smile on his face. “It seems like he really wants to be here.”
It’s the same reaction expressed by several of Augustin’s clients. “I notice a real desire from many of the individuals I work with to share their experiences from improv,” she says. “I once had a client teach me the game ‘What Are You Doing?’ He was having so much fun with it. I don’t have many young people who are excited to show me what they’ve learned in school, but these are exercises that stay with them.”
In another activity, the students are walking around the room and being asked to take on the form of a character of their own invention by leading with various parts of their bodies. At one point, Fisher asks them to lead with their shoulders. Johne turns to Miles and asks him to describe his character. “You could call me a pretty swanky individual,” he says, taking large leaps around the room and rolling his shoulders back dramatically with each step forward.
“What would his voice sound like?” Fisher asks.
“Probably…probably like the Joker,” says Miles.
Johne, walking in circles with the group, asks Miles if the class can hear it.
“No, no, no,” Miles stops walking and shakes his head. “Definitely not, my voice is not capable of going that low.”
Fisher responds. “Miles, can you keep walking just as you were? And if you can’t talk like that, can you show us where in your voice a pitch like that might sound like?”
Miles starts his walk again and considers Fisher’s question. “It’s hard to move and think at the same,” he says.
“Trust me, that’s why I’m having you do it,” says Fisher. “Can we hear a little sound of what this character might be like?”
The students continue to walk in circles, shoulders first. A few moments of silence pass. Then, Miles summons a deep, belly-low noise that nearly halts his fellow participants in their tracks. They start clapping at once, and Miles smiles as he continues his pace.
It’s those kinds of experiences, Augustin notes, that are going to help make a person with ASD want to say “yes” to opportunities that might appear as challenges.
“Every time you do something that is out of your comfort zone, whatever it is, you are firing neurons in your brain that did not fire together before.”
“Every time you do something that is out of your comfort zone, whatever it is, you are firing neurons in your brain that did not fire together before. Neurons that fire together wire together, so you’re changing people’s thinking,” says Augustin, who references an article about neuroplasticity in children discussing the structural and functional changes in the brain that occur as a result of training and experience. “Once you see what you’re capable of doing, you wouldn’t stop, and once you say yes to enough things, anything is possible.”
The class is concluding for the night with one more round of scene work, a group exercise that requires five students. Four have already gone up, and they’re waiting on one more. As is often the case in improv, a world of unknowns and no straight paths, two students attempt to fill the space at the very same instance—Nick and Chance. Nick pauses and looks at Chance, and Fisher does as well. Chance wasn’t always so willing to jump up for group scenes, leaving Fisher and Johne to prompt him in previous cases.
“Chance,” Fisher starts. “Do you want to watch this round or go up?”
A moment passes, and everyone remains silent. Chance looks at his teacher, then at his classmates before him.
“Up,” he says.