A New York speech pathologist is using improvisational theater, better known as "improv," to help young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to develop their social skills.

Bob Domingo, PhD, a speech language pathologist and associate professor at Long Island University Post in Brookville, New York, is combining his skills and love of improv to help those with ASD.

"Through improv, I am able to combine my knowledge of speech, language and communication with improv games and activities, to open up new, fun ways to communicate with others in developing spontaneous, unscripted ‘scenes’ or conversations," Domingo told Fox News Digital in an interview.

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For individuals with ASD, symptoms can vary in severity.

People can be anywhere from completely nonverbal to fully verbal, according to Domingo and other experts. 

Bob Domingo, PhD, a speech language pathologist and assistant professor at Long Island University Post

Bob Domingo, PhD, a speech language pathologist and associate professor at Long Island University Post, is combining his skills and love of improv to help those with ASD. (Amy McGorry)

Here's what to know.

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder

Individuals with the disorder often have social and cognitive impairments that make it difficult to interact with others, according to Domingo.

They may be prone to a limited attention span, which can make it difficult for them to comprehend what others are saying. 

"The person [may be] unable to use appropriate social skills in conversations," Domingo said. 

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Those with the disorder might also struggle to maintain eye contact, broach topics and take turns during conversations, he added.

People with ASD may also struggle with "self-advocacy," Domingo said, which means they're unable to verbalize their thoughts, feelings and needs.

Improv class

Domingo’s class consists of eight to 12 young verbal adults with ASD from age 19 through over 30, along with some students and professors from the university. (Amy McGorry)

One in 36 (2.8%) 8-year-old children in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as of March 2023, as stated in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Currently there is no cure for autism, but intensive, early treatments can help make a difference in the lives of those with the disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

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Domingo said he hopes his improv classes will help strengthen communication through interactive dialogue exercises.

"Games and activities encourage active listening, which is important for interpersonal communication," he said.

What is improv?

Improv is a live performance in which actors spontaneously create scenes and characters that engage in dialogue based on the audience’s or host’s suggestion, according to experts. 

The exchange can be comical or serious. 

Members of the improv troop participate in "yes/and" interactions, which is when one person says something and the other agrees by responding with "yes, and" — which moves the conversation along more easily.

Improv performers

In improv, actors spontaneously create scenes and characters that engage in dialogue based on the audience’s or host’s suggestion. (iStock)

Domingo’s class consists of eight to 12 young verbal adults with ASD from age 19 through over 30, along with some students and professors from the university.

They meet each week on the LIU Post campus and also have Zoom sessions, during which they practice speaking, listening and maintaining eye contact.

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"Improv helps people speak with one another in fun, non-threatening ways," Domingo told Fox News Digital.

At the start of each class, the group gathers in a circle to perform exercises in breathing, voice, facial expressions and physical movements.

Improv performers

The instructor told Fox News Digital that he hopes the practice that those with ASD receive "helps them make good linguistic and interpersonal decisions outside of class." (iStock)

Next, the students are paired up and assigned roles, and are then given a prompt to start the improv session. 

Examples of social encounters they might have include what people to invite to a party, what gift to buy for another person, or how to show support to a partner in a certain situation, Domingo said.

The pair is tasked with coming up with a conversation with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Guided by Domingo's cues, the pair is tasked with coming up with a conversation with a clear beginning, middle and end that includes a conflict and a resolution.

"The practice they receive in improv hopefully helps them make good linguistic and interpersonal decisions outside of class," Domingo said.

Real-life benefits

The improv therapy appears to be helping some of the students, according to parents who spoke with Fox News Digital.  

Anthony and Deborah D’Alessandri of Long Island, New York, said their 23-year-old son, Anthony Joseph D’Alessandri, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

"He’s very intelligent and is very funny in his own way. But he doesn’t always connect," Deborah D’Alessandri said in an interview.

Autism intervention

One in 36 (2.8%) 8-year-old children in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as of March 2023, as stated in a CDC report. (iStock)

Since their son started improv, his parents have seen an improvement in his interactions in other programs he participates in, such as his culinary classes, they said.

"Bob’s improv has helped Anthony in those programs, which is a huge success for Anthony," his mother told Fox News Digital. 

"He has learned to communicate better with other people. He has learned that sometimes humor adds to the conversation," she continued. "He has also learned to work with a group."

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Another parent, Elizabeth Matthew, also from Long Island, told Fox News Digital that the improv classes have helped her 19-year-old son with his anxiety

"The social aspect of speaking and learning through improv has increased his self-confidence," she said. 

"Part of his issues involve anxiety and not knowing what to say first, so this is enabling a stronger self-confidence."

"All adults who meet the formal criteria for autism have difficulty with social skills."

Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that theater-based intervention led to cognitive and behavioral improvements in young individuals with ASD.

Rebecca Landa, PhD, executive director of the Center for Autism Services, Science and Innovation (CASSI) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, was not part of the improv class but commented about it to Fox News Digital.

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"All adults who meet the formal criteria for autism have difficulty with social skills. The specific nature of these difficulties may vary from person to person," Landa said.

She said the difficulties might be less pronounced in familiar situations with no stressors.

These social challenges can affect a person’s overall sense of well-being, she said.

Improv performers

Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that theater-based intervention led to cognitive and behavioral improvements in young individuals with ASD. (iStock)

"Autistic people may mask their social difficulties, which causes fatigue and is often associated with anxiety," she said.

"Improv classes can help if the autistic person enjoys the class and wants to participate."

The expert cautioned, however, that a mental health professional and autism expert should facilitate these types of classes. 

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"[They can] provide additional coaching and reflection to support insight and conscious awareness of what is helping, [identify] which skills may be targeted and improved, and [identify] how to apply the skills in real-life situations," she said.

Domingo said he hopes more professionals will consider using improv to help those with autism. 

Autism awareness

"Autistic people may mask their social difficulties, which causes fatigue and is often associated with anxiety," an expert said. (iStock)

In May 2024, he will present at the annual New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association (NYSSLHA) convention in White Plains, New York. He'll discuss the use of improv to help with social skills. 

He is also teaching a course to several disciplines at Long Island University about using improv to help individuals socially interact.

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Cost may be a barrier for some families, parents noted.

Anthony D’Alessandria told Fox News Digital that he hopes insurance will eventually cover alternative approaches like these improv courses.

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"We feel that if this was more mainstream and insurance companies would pick up the tab, we would be able to promote our child to greater heights," he said. 

"And we feel that there is going to be an entire generation that can’t afford this."

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

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