Learned Spontaneity

Life is improv. We make it up as we go along, responding and reacting to the words and actions of others. Sometimes life feels scripted as we go through the same experiences again and again, but if you really stop and think about it, each interaction has a tone and feel all it’s own.

Most of us handle the improv of life with relative ease. But, if you have a nonverbal or social learning disorder, or are on the autism spectrum, even improvising at the level of small talk doesn’t come easy. For these individuals, the back and forth exchanges that are the hallmark of all relationships are elusive skills. Early on in my improv training I realized that improv exercises target and reinforce some of the most basic and successful social interaction skills. Why not use them with our kids?

The foundation skill exercise Yes, and… is a response to an offering by another actor. The first actor might say, “I love this restaurant!” The second might answer, “Yes, I love it too, and my pasta tastes amazing!” (He receives and acknowledges the actor #1’s offering and adds a connective and expansive thought.) Actor #1 responds, “Mine is delicious too, and I’m going to do a happy dance when I’m done eating!” Now they both have somewhere to go. The scene develops and heightens because of the mutual focus, acknowledgement, and expansive contributions of each actor.

I started using this improv exercise with my high school Social Thinking® group. Social Thinking is a teaching framework created by SLP, Michelle Garcia Winner that helps kids and adults learn to be better social thinkers so they can be more successful in social interactions.

After explaining how Yes, and… works and trying a couple of rounds with my group, one of the boys exclaimed, “It’s a formula! You just have to repeat what the last person says and add on to it. So, if the first person says, ‘I’m going to the mall today,’ the next person repeats and adds on by saying, ‘I’m going to the mall, too! And, I’m going to buy a new video game.’ The next person repeats that last add on, ‘Yes, I’m going to buy a new video game too, and I’m going to play it on my big screen TV.’”

It’s absolutely true that this exercise starts out very formulaic. Teachers working with kids who like to use scripts to memorize how to talk to others will have to eventually “unteach” this strategy to help it sound more natural. As children practice the Yes, and… s   trategy more, the structure eventually becomes less rigid as the kids get into it, the additions become more natural, and the connections more fluid as we practice the game. The Yes, and… words themselves often drop away altogether. “I love amusement parks.” “Me, too! My favorite is Disney World!” “I love Disney! Space Mountain is the best ride ever!” Since back and forth exchanges are confusing for people with social learning challenges, this exercise helps reinforce the basic skills needed for successful social interactions. It’s a first step in learning how we use connecting comments to build a conversation by linking our thoughts to what other people are talking about. It’s also a way of helping kids learn that interaction has a pace and rhythm and that all people can contribute and be part of the dance.

Yes, and… is one of the tools we all use for building healthy relationships. It’s a co-creative process within which we think about ourselves and others, listen to others, acknowledge and accept (or not!) what they are saying, and add related comments to keep the interaction moving along and on an even keel. It is a pre-cursor in teaching what Garcia calls, “add-a-thought comments.”

My students understand the importance of learning this exercise and are practicing outside of the group with success. This is just one of the many ways life is improv. Yes, and… better living through improv can be taught!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *