Read how a theatre specialist is using face masks to help autistic children overcome the challenges of making eye contact, focusing and concentrating.
When Parasuram Ramamoorthy, a theatre specialist, heard the word autism for the first time, he misheard it as ‘artism’. That was happenstance with a purpose, because from then on art has been changing the lives of many children with autism. Neurologists across the world are trying to solve the three biggest challenges of autism – the inability of autistic children to make eye contact, their short attention span and their lack of empathy.
These seemingly insurmountable challenges have been surpassed not by any medical miracle but a simple tool used in traditional Indian theatre – the face mask.
Video story by Our Better World
Like in Kathakali or Yakshagana, where an artist’s face is painted with vibrant colours and transformed into a character, an autistic child goes through a metamorphosis when his/her face is painted or wears a mask. The child has to look into the eyes of the painter, establishing eye contact, which would otherwise not happen.
“These children avoid eye contact to feel safe and the mask gives them that feeling,” says Parasuram.
When eye contact is established, the child connects with the painter. This allows the artist to enter the child’s world. As the child is getting painted, he/she internalises the process and feels less inhibited. With the wearable mask as well, the peripheral vision is cut off and the child’s gaze is not distracted anymore. The child has to look into the eyes of the person opposite. With the mask on, the child is able to focus, pay attention and make a theatrical performance!
The magic of the mask is such that children start to look at their parents’ faces and bond with them better. The normal attention span of an autistic child is just about 15-30 seconds. With the use of the face mask the attention span is increased to 300 seconds or so!
When an autistic child takes a paintbrush in his/her hands, draws a moustache on the mother’s face and laughs out loud, a milestone has been reached!
“You see yourself as a new person while wearing a mask. Masks help in building an image of self-confidence,” says Parasuram.
At Velvi, Parasuram’s organization in Madurai where theatre is used for autism, the process is unhurried and unconventional. No child is forced to wear a mask. No performance has be perfect. The child artist might break into laughter in a grim situation in the play. But that’s perfectly fine. It’s the process that is important.
A theatre session begins with Parasuram wearing a mask. More masks are lying on the floor. Some children may pick them up and wear them, some won’t. The children wearing the masks start playing with Parasuram and this makes the others curious. Slowly, everyone joins in and the fun begins. The children make various sounds and learn to make rhythmic movements. They are given plots, with various settings and no fixed story line.
“It is amazing to see the different ways they build a story, ways in which you would never expect them to,” says Parasuram, who has proven wrong all claims that children with autism lack imagination.
Velvi uses theatre techniques of role play, rehearsals, creative games and face masks to get children to learn imitation and social interaction.
Velvi also involves parents and teachers of autistic children. In creative plays involving both children and adults, the adults also learn how to engage with the children better. To date, over 5000 children have benefited from Velvi’s theatre for autism. Many places in different countries have adopted these techniques. Velvi also makes the techniques available to people through an online course.
The organisation’s annual theatre festival for autistic children is held in various cities every year. This year, the festival will be held in Bangalore. Everyone is welcome and it promises to be a unique experience indeed.
For more information log on to http://www.velvi.org/