Can Theatre Increase Autism Acceptance? Evaluating a Performance Piece Developed from Stakeholder Stories and Delivered By Autistic and Non-Autistic Actors

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
A. Massa1, D. DeNigris2 and K. Gillespie-Lynch3, (1)College of Staten Island, Staten Island, NY, (2)Psychology & Counseling, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ, (3)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island; CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn, NY
Background: Autistic college students face challenges despite often high academic potential, including stigma toward autism (Matthews et al., 2015). Participation in an online fact-based autism training was associated with increased autism knowledge and decreased stigma among college students in the United States, Lebanon and Japan (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2015; Obeid et al., 2015). However, factual knowledge about autism may be less consistently associated with attitudes toward autism than high-quality contact with autism is (Gardiner & Iarocci, 2014; Nevill & White, 2011; White et al., 2016). According to “contact theory,” direct positive contact between two groups may result in reduced biases (Allport, 1954).

Objectives: By developing a participatory performance-based intervention from the stories of autistic people and people close to them, Beyond Spectrums, which autistic people acted in, we aimed to use high-quality contact to decrease autism stigma and increase autism knowledge.

Methods: We gathered stories from the NYC autism community via survey. Respondents (N = 34) were informed that their responses would be dramaturged to create a script and answered a question from a list of choices (e.g., “In what ways have you observed autism to empower or disempower individuals?”) using any form of writing they desired (story, free verse, etc.). Two of the nine performers in Beyond Spectrums were autistic. Participants (N= 101) attended one of three performances and completed demographics questionnaires and pre-test/post-test evaluations (before and immediately following the performance, respectively) assessing autism knowledge and stigma (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2015). Participants varied in age (M = 29.47), gender (53% female), ethnicity (47.9% minorities), and lived experience with autism (8.3% were autistic and 19.0% had an autistic nuclear relative). Participants’ responses to open ended questions about the performance were qualitatively coded after reliability was obtained.

Results: A mixed-model ANOVA revealed that men reported higher stigma than women (p = .02), a reduction in stigma from pre-test to post-test (p < .001), and an interaction between gender and change in stigma (p = .025). Another mixed-model ANOVA indicated an increase in autism knowledge following the performance piece (p < .001) but no associations with gender.

Among participants who completed open-ended evaluations of the performance, 94% indicated they had learned something new, 98% indicated that it was effective, 83% indicated that it had an emotional impact on them (often referring to a relationship with autism), and 96% indicated that it could change society. However, they often qualified societal impact (e.g., “this is a first step”). When asked how to improve it, 36% of respondents indicated that it was great as it was, 7% suggested that it could be more interactive, 35% provided polishing suggestions and 14% indicated that more autistic actors and/or stories should be incorporated.

Conclusions: Findings indicate that theatre can reduce autism stigma. A key strength of this research is that it was guided by autistic voices. Future theatrical interventions should meld greater resources with opportunities for diverse autistic people to shape the piece in order to impact stigma on a larger scale.