- New research shows that improv comedy may have mental health benefits for people with autism.
- People with autism described improv as a factor in lowering their anxiety and depression.
- Improv helped people with autism practice collaborative social skills like turn-taking.
People with autism must hear an awful lot of “nos.” Don’t do this. Stop saying that. Things that feel like they’re going against the grain of what feels comfortable and natural for them.
I’ve told the tale of working with a girl with autism a few times, but it’s my favorite way of jumping into how magical improv can be for people with autism. She was taking all the books off a shelf and then putting them back facing every which way. I sat beside her and put one book back on the shelf, and she immediately removed it. No, I wasn’t doing it right. So I watched her shelving and tried again. Eventually, we were laughing together as we played the “see how creatively you can shelve books” game. Unfortunately, an adult walked by and told us we were doing it wrong and demanded that we immediately put the books back the "correct" way.
Improv is a framework, a system, to help people with and without autism mutually understand each other and collaborate. It removes the right and wrong that often pervades neurodivergent people’s lives. There’s no correct way with improv. Instead, there are some of your ideas mixed with some of mine. The right answer is just an amalgamation of our combined contributions.
That’s why I was so excited to see that Nathan Keates has been studying the impacts of improv on people with autism and other kinds of neurodivergence. Keates and Julie Beadle-Brown interviewed 20 people for their study. Ten participants self-identified as autistic, five as neurodivergent other than autistic, and five as neurotypical. All participants had taken at least one improv class, as the study's research question aimed to answer what, if any, effects improv had on the interviewees.
Keates and Beadle-Brown categorized all the interview responses into five main benefits of improvisation for people with autism.
1. Creativity and Opportunites
Participants in the interviews reported being able to transfer improv skills to their everyday lives. Interviewees also talked about how improv helped them in other creative pursuits such as writing or on the job such as with sales, with clients, or in school.
2. Acceptance and Cognitive Flexibility
Participants also reported that they were better able to go with the flow thanks to improv. Some participants connected their improv experience to mindfulness or meditation. Others described becoming more accepting of their current reality or more tolerant of changes in their routine.
3. Social and Communication Skills
Improv tended to help participants with soft skills such as listening and collaborating with others. People with autism reported more gains in social skills like turn-taking.
4. Mental Health, Quality of Life, and Well-Being
Some participants described mental health benefits of improv, such as lowering depression or anxiety. Some described improvements in their quality of life like increased self-esteem or confidence. People in all three groups (autistic, neurodivergent, and neurotypical) described experiencing fun and joy because of improv. Co-writer of the study, Nathan Keates, says, “When you seek to empower autistic people to learn improv, similar benefits may occur, including reduced anxiety.”
5. Understanding and Authenticity
For me, the most telling and important finding from the interviews was how people with autism reported being able to be more authentic while improvising. To successfully improvise, people can’t judge each other or each other’s ideas. That frees everyone up to be more authentic.
When people are more expressive and authentic, it also acts as a kind of social laboratory where people with autism can better understand neurotypical people and vice versa.
Keats and Beadle-Brown described improv’s structure and rules as one factor that helped participants show up as their more authentic selves. Improv has rules like “There are no mistakes” and “Yes, And” that help people with autism stop masking (trying to appear neurotypical) and be more authentically themselves.
Going Full Autistic
Keats and Beadle-Brown highlighted the phrase “going full autistic” in their paper to underscore the authentic expression improv can make possible for people with autism. Participants revealed that improv helped them unmask, not pretend to be neurotypical, and improvise using their unique personalities.
"Going full autistic" gets to the heart of the improv/autism marriage. It’s that little girl laughing and stacking books how she wanted to, instead of how all the neurotypical people around her were doing it.
Improv is a safe space to experience this kind of unfiltered expression, this feedback loop based on unbridled acceptance. Obviously, in a world filled with so many neurotypical people, unmasking isn’t always safe and accepted, but that’s why it’s so important to carve out more of these spaces where everyone can let their guard down, show up as their most authentic selves, and play in the unknown spaces where your ideas meet mine.
Drinko, C. (2013). Theatrical improvisation, consciousness, and cognition. Springer.
Keates, N., & Beadle-Brown, J. (2023). Improvisers’ experiences across neurotypes of participating in improv comedy. Advances in Autism.