Laughter is the best medicine for autistic children at comedy club
His face a picture of concentration, Abdulla, 8, masterfully holds a slender, wooden stick, on which he’s balancing a spinning plate.
Across the room, William, 6, is perfecting his moves with a hula-hoop, while Jasper, 5, is doing his best to balance a metre-long peacock feather vertically on his nose.
The boys are part of a group of nine youngsters who have been taking part in a five-week pilot comedy programme in Dubai. Between the ages of 5 and 18, with nationalities spanning Emirati, American, British, Indian, Sudanese and beyond, this diverse group is united by the fact that they’re all autistic.
Autism Smiles – Youth Comedy Club is the creation of the comedians Mina Liccione and Ali Al Sayed. Together, they are the husband-and-wife team behind Dubai’s Dubomedy Arts School.
“Dubomedy’s mission is simple: to bring joy to others,” explains Liccione. “We use comedy as a tool to bring people of different cultural, religious and financial backgrounds together for a laugh, in the hope of adding more positivity and breaking stereotypes.”
Last year, the duo took on the role of arts instructors for As One: The Autism Project, a documentary film focusing on a group of autistic youngsters from across the Emirates. As One... had its premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October to widespread acclaim.
“It was an honour to be part of such an important project that is intended to help break the stigma associated with autism,” says Liccione. “We learnt a lot and have made lifelong friends from the experience. It is also what inspired our Autism Smiles – Youth Comedy Club.”
Autism is a developmental disorder, which is marked by an impaired ability to communicate and socialise, and a tendency towards repetitive behaviours and activities.
Autistic traits can vary significantly from one person to another. Some “high-functioning” individuals may present few obvious symptoms, while others may have little or no speech.
Following the premiere of As One..., Liccione says they were inundated with requests from parents who had seen the film who asked if it would be possible to set up a creative programme for autistic children, as there are so few outlets for these youngsters to learn expressive arts.
“Each email was a unique story,” she says. “However, one thing was very common and clear: that there aren’t enough activities for children on the spectrum. So we decided to start one.
“While working on As One..., we saw first-hand the amount of work, love, patience and compassion families with special-needs children require. This club is a humble gift to these parents and their kids who may not always get all the support they need.”
Throughout the inaugural Autism Smiles programme (which is run free of charge), Liccione, Al Sayed and their team have encouraged their students to try out a variety of creative skills designed to enhance self-expression and boost self-confidence.
“As laughter is proven to de-stress and calm the brain, making others laugh is empowering and improves social skills,” explains Liccione. “In addition, we always include a physical laughter yoga warm-up and a circus skill which requires focus, balance and hand/eye control.”
During the fun-filled sessions, the youngsters have learnt physical comedy routines, circus skills such as juggling and plate spinning, as well as songs, dances and comedy storytelling.
Rachel Hamilton, the author of the humorous children’s book The Case of the Exploding Loo, made a guest appearance, while the comedy magician Preba entertained the group with illusions and card tricks – and even shared a few trade secrets.
Judging by the broad smiles around the room, the pilot comedy programme is a big hit – not just with the children, but with their families, too.
“The response I have seen from Abdulla is way beyond anything I expected,” says Khawla Barley, Abdulla’s mother. “He talks about the class quite a lot and counts the days until he returns.
“He was extremely interested in meeting an author and the experience has brought forth a lot of interesting discussions with him. He’s even talked about writing a book.”
William’s mother, Lisa Stratford, says: “It’s an activity just for William, which is very exciting for him.
“It also allows William to be himself and interact with the other children. But most importantly the benefit is laughter. I want him to laugh as much as possible.”
If activities for special-needs youngsters in the UAE are relatively limited when compared to the likes of the United States or Europe, then activities specifically for children with autism are rarer still.
Barley, who lives in Abu Dhabi, says the model for reaching out to individuals with autism in the Emirates tends to be via stand-alone fun days or held in conjunction with special-needs centres.
“While I do believe any effort is admirable, I am not attracted to one-off events; I constantly look for ways to engage Abdulla in ongoing activities where he can gain skills, develop interests and generally develop as a person,” she explains.
“Because Abdulla is very bright academically, he gets bored easily. And because of his autism, he is not able to communicate this boredom to others, nor is he able to easily create activities for himself as many other children do at his age.”
She adds that, in her experience, generalised special-needs activities often fail to hit the mark when it comes to children with autism.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Stratford, who says she finds Dubai limiting when it comes to suitable after-school activities for her son: “The options are little to none,” she admits.
As a Dubai-based mother of an autistic youngster myself, I understand the frustrations faced by the likes of Barley and Stratford when it comes to tracking down suitable activities for these children – and, most importantly, activities that the children will enjoy.
Jasper, who had such fun balancing the peacock feather on his nose, is my son. Although he’s on the higher-functioning end of the autistic spectrum and attends a mainstream school, he still finds many of the extra-curricular activities designed for “neurotypical” children to be too challenging socially and beyond his grasp.
Through trial and error, I’ve learnt that expecting Jasper to participate with other children his age in some of Dubai’s mainstream sports clubs or summer camps is akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole: not a good fit.
When I contacted one of the emirate’s horse-riding clubs that caters for special-needs youngsters, I was told it’s vastly oversubscribed, with a year-long waiting list for a place.
The undeniable reality is we live in what is sometimes referred to as “the age of autism”, where the disorder has reached almost epidemic proportions.
Figures released last year by the US Centers for Disease Control show a 30 per cent rise in cases of autism in just two years, to one in every 68 children in the US.
While autism statistics for the UAE are not easy to find, the proliferation of specialist centres that have opened in the last five years in Dubai and Abu Dhabi speaks for itself: autism is increasingly touching the lives of people of all nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds, and affects around four times as many boys as girls.
Despite the rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism, the condition remains somewhat of a mystery. No one knows for certain what causes it, just as no one has yet found a cure.
One thing is certain, though, that children with autism need opportunities for laughter, creativity and self-expression in exactly the same way as neurotypical children. This is, after all, how any child learns and develops as a person.
Irrespective of where they lie on the spectrum and what therapy (if any) they are receiving, autistic youngsters benefit from being exposed to a wide range of fun experiences and activities, whether it’s music, art, football or learning to juggle.
“No matter what walk of life one comes from or the challenges we face, a sense of humour is the key ingredient to a happier, healthier life,” says Liccione.
Throughout the Autism Smiles programme, I’ve seen the youngsters channelling their efforts into developing new skills which they’ve been able to share with their peers in the group.
From a parent’s perspective, seeing the children connect with one another through a shared, fun activity has been hugely satisfying. Barley agrees: “Abdulla often comments on how the other children have reacted to something during the comedy class and I can hear the happiness in his voice.
“He feels connected to them, because perhaps they both laughed at the same thing or both mastered the same skill.
“My sincere hope is that efforts like Mina’s will become ongoing and serve as a new model for groups that truly wish to help the autism and special-needs community.”
While science continues to debate the best way to treat (and perhaps eventually cure) autism, in the meantime perhaps we should simply try massaging the funny bone of autistic youngsters to provoke some good old-fashioned laughter? As a form of medicine, it’s fun, free, easy to use and impossible to overdose on.
• The next Autism Smiles – Youth Comedy Club is due to begin in May. For more information, contact email@example.com
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Updated: March 26, 2015 04:00 AM