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Unique theater program aids those with Asperger's syndrome

Author: By Harvy Lipman - Staff Writer - Bergen Record
Written On: Mon, 22 Sep 2008

Three local non-profits have joined together to create the first theater-arts program in New Jersey — and perhaps the country — specifically designed for adults with Asperger’s syndrome and other forms of autism.

More than a dozen people with Asperger’s have begun participating in the eight-week program at the Garage Theater, based at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck. It’s being overseen by the Autism Center of New Jersey Medical School in Newark, with funding from the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation in Ridgewood.

The theater program takes advantage of one of Asperger’s key elements — its sufferers’ intense focus on a particular area of interest — to help them overcome its most debilitating symptom: their inability to interact socially with other people.

“As kids, they are the little professors,” said B. Madeleine Goldfarb, director of outreach and education for the Autism Center. “Somebody might have an interest in airplanes and they’ll know everything there is to know about airplanes, they could tell you every airplane that was ever made and the year it was made. Yet they will not have the general social ability to play with their peers.”

That social awkwardness goes beyond simple shyness, Goldfarb explained. People with Asperger’s often can’t look others in the eye during conversations. They don’t recognize sarcasm or kidding, instead taking other people’s words very literally. They often feel compelled to say what’s on their minds, even when inappropriate.

“That inability to relate socially can impair their world to where they cannot hold a job because they cannot socially understand what’s going on around them,” Goldfarb said.

Linda Walder Fiddle, president of the Fiddle Foundation, said the idea for a theatre workshop was spurred by a conversation with one person with Asperger’s — the 34-year-old son of Assemblywoman Joan Voss, the Fort Lee Democrat.

“Paul is 34 and works and lives on his own, and he was telling me that he loves the theater, but all the programs are for teenagers and really inappropriate for him,” Fiddle said.

Fiddle, whose foundation already funds organizations that work with adolescents and adults with autism, contacted Goldfarb and Michael Bias, artistic director of the Garage Theater, to put together the workshop.

“When I was a little kid I loved making up stories,” Paul Voss said. “I wanted to be a great story teller.”

He took some college courses in theater, but he added, “When I was in my 20s I never took anything seriously.”

When he grew older and began learning to cope with his condition, “I made a promise to myself that if I ever get another chance at doing theater or TV or movies, I would not only take it seriously, but I would make sure I don’t fall back.”

Goldfarb said the workshop participants will also develop social skills.

“You’re working on so many of the skills in the construct of a theater that you see socially,” she said. “You work on how you relate to other people on a stage.”

“Over the years I have had kids in my programs who have had Asperger’s,” Bias noted. “They were the first ones to learn their lines, and they got extremely upset with others who weren’t learning them. They tend to see the world in black and white. What I find challenging is getting them to see the grays in life.”

Fiddle hopes the workshop will spur people in fields other than theater to create similar opportunities for those affected by the syndrome.

“It could be a class in ceramics or a cooking class or something about working with animals. Anything that people are interested in, there will be people with Asperger’s who have that intense interest,” Fiddle said.