by Anne Malinoski

I recently had the privilege of meeting with local nonprofit Unscripted Learning to observe their popular youth improv class. Like many teens I know, the students were quirky, comical and utterly delighted to hassle their teacher when he made a social blunder. The improv games are (by design) a riot — the parents and I were cracking up! When a student became agitated, the instructor initiated a quick calming exercise before moving along to the next game.

Connections is an improv program for teens on the Autism spectrum. Students meet weekly to play theater games and perform improvised scenes. Afterwards, they discuss the choices they made onstage. The instructor is co-founder and Program Director Richie Ploesch. During the week, he works as a behavioral analyst, providing in-home therapy to teens with ASD. On weekends, he is a mainstage actor for National Comedy Theatre (NCT), San Diego’s longest-running improv show.

The idea for Connections came about when Ploesch was explaining his day job to NCT director Gary Kramer, who remarked that kids on the Autism spectrum seem to have the same learning goals as improv students.

“We were talking about the level 1 class at NCT and how the skills that are taught there—listening, telling stories, paying attention to emotions—are the same things I’m teaching teens,” says Ploesch. They put together a series of lesson plans and launched their first class in 2017.

Parents can’t praise the program enough. “This class has changed our lives,” says Nancy Beehn of Linda Vista. “When I took my son to family gatherings before, he would hide and use his headphones. Now he communicates. Improv has really helped him find appropriate behaviors,” she says. Beehn works as a child therapist and says she refers clients to Connections frequently, citing her son’s enormous progress.

In class, the kids partner up for a game called “gibberish story.” They take turns telling a simple story, but when the instructor shouts “gibberish” they must continue the narrative using only nonsense words, facial expressions and body language. Debriefing after the game, one student admits, “Reading the other person was hard—just reading their physical cues.” This type of practice truly benefits kids who struggle with personal interactions.

“This class has been a catalyst for building social skills,” says Sarah Biggart of San Marcos. “What my son learns here translates to his daily interactions. You can see the change.” Biggart’s son Hendrix says he loves comedy and that the class has improved his confidence. Last year, buoyed by that confidence, he attended his first football game at school. Now he attends all the games and pep rallies.

According to Kramer, the nonprofit’s executive director, the primary goal of Unscripted Learning is to build social awareness and appropriateness. “We take a scientific approach to doing this,” Kramer says. “We want instructors who are credentialed and who have worked with kids with special needs before. It’s therapy first—using improv to teach the social skills.” It’s working! A recent San Diego State University study confirmed that the program has been associated with improved social skills and decreased social anxiety.

Another benefit of the program is that participating teens have bonded with one another and meet regularly just to hang out. Parents stress how wonderful it is for their children to be invited to birthday parties—and to have friends who show up to theirs.

Each class of 10-12 teens meets weekly at Liberty Station, with occasional sessions at the NCT theater on India Street. The kids perform an annual, full-length showcase that Kramer describes as magic. A class for ages 9-12 will be available next year and plans for an adult class are underway. To learn more, visit www.unscriptedlearning.org.

Anne Malinoski is a contributing writer and mother of two boys. Her older brother has special needs.