Theatre Professor Finds Working with Children on Autism Spectrum Rewarding

Gretta Berghammer with Child Wearing Moustache

For Gretta Berghammer, taking risks is what it’s all about.  The professor of drama education and youth theatre has recently been devoting her efforts to working with children on the autism spectrum.  Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and to different extents.  “That’s what makes it especially challenging for parents and educators,” she said.  “No two children in the autism spectrum have the same needs.”

Autism, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects one out of every 88 children in the U.S., includes a spectrum of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.  The disorder affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize.

Berghammer launched the Spectrum Theatre, an experimental program designed for young people on and off the autism spectrum during the fall 2011 semester.  Focusing on the six-to-eight and nine-to-12 age groups, the program provides drama experience to best support the development of pretend play, social interaction and nonverbal behaviors.  Instead of putting children on stage, the program uses process drama, in which students and teacher work together to create an imaginary world to explore a problem, situation or theme for their own benefit rather than for an audience.

The results of this and earlier work have been encouraging, Berghammer said.  Nonverbal participants have embraced pantomime and movement as a way to share ideas, characters and dramatic actions.  Role playing has captured their imagination and helped expand their use of language, gesture and story.  Work with masks has helped create a sense of “performer.”  “Perhaps the most exciting development is the social collaboration and interaction among participants,” Berghammer said

She first became interested in working with children with autism after seeing spectrum-specific classes at the Omaha Children’s Theatre.   Then during a five-month professional development assignment, she experimented with ways to use drama techniques in support of a variety of spectrum behaviors, such as delayed speech, lack of eye contact, or repetitive language or physical motion, to name a few.  Berghammer has offered classes Incorporating these techniques to Cedar Valley students on the autism spectrum through several programs:  Exceptional Persons, Inc., Highland Elementary School in Waterloo and the ASPIRE program in Dubuque.

An outgrowth of her autism work in the Cedar Valley is Berghammer’s involvement with the Student Online Achievement Resources (SOAR) project at UNI, which provides resources for the unique educational challenges facing military children.  Using the practices she developed in the drama setting and reworking them into best practices for parenting, she is helping to develop a series of videos for military families with children on the autism spectrum.

Berghammer’s students at UNI have also benefited from her work, which has been supported by the Community Foundation, the Guernsey Foundation, the McElroy Trust, the Frank Darrah/John Struck Trust and a gift from John and Jodi Deery, Jr.  In the spring 2012 semester, she taught a new course, Drama in Inclusive Classrooms.

“Working with children on the autism spectrum is challenging,” she notes.  “I’m taking risks, making mistakes.  You don’t have to be perfect—every day I chip away a little more.”

In addition to her work with children with autism, Berghammer has focused on bullying and cyber-bullying, play and creativity, Holocaust education and directing youth-oriented productions such as Mother Hicks, The Wrestling Season and To Kill a Mockingbird for the Strayer-Wood Theatre.  She holds an M.F.A. in Theatre for Youth/Creative Drama from the University of Texas at Austin and was awarded the 2010 Board of Regents, State of Iowa Award for Faculty Excellence.