New First Stage class helps children with autism take ‘Next Steps’ in development

Branching Out - First Stage Next Steps

At First Stage Children’s Theater, staff members often recite this familiar tagline: There are no cool kids at First Stage. There are ONLY cool kids at First Stage.

So whether a student is at the top of his class or whether she is the last to be picked, differences don’t matter. All students are given the same outlet and opportunities to be themselves and learn important life skills through stage skills.

The professional children’s theatre will offer the same kind of opportunity for children with autism starting this summer through a specially-designed Summer Theater Academy class. Called “Next Steps,” the weeklong session will feature smaller class sizes and a specialized curriculum.

First Stage already serves a number of children with autism through its Theater Academy and staff members have seen the impact those classes have had on their self confidence, self expression and overall social skills. Knowing that many more area children could benefit and wanting to better equip teachers with the skills to best support those students, First Stage decided to create an academy session specifically tailored to meet their needs. 

Various other professional children’s theatre companies across the country, including the Nashville Children’s Theatre and Omaha’s Rose Theater, offer classes for children with autism. Some, like the Chicago Children’s Theatre, offer performances specifically designed for children with autism. In developing the program, First Stage staff spoke with those companies as well as met with area providers, including the Milwaukee Center for Independence and the Autism Society of Wisconsin, to gather ideas and best practices. First Stage teachers and actors will learn strategies and techniques for how to teach students with autism and other learning disabilities. 

The result? A session for students in sixth grade and up held at the end of August following the end of First Stage’s traditional summer academy. Classes will feature no more than eight students and also will include a lead teacher, special education professional and teaching assistants. Students will study drama, music and movement and gather at the beginning and end of each day.

First Stage hopes to offer a spring session, expand to include more age groups and eventually offer classes throughout the year as well. 

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Funding needs include:

$1,500 to provide teacher training

$3,000 to cover the costs for participating students

$20,000 to sponsor the “Next Steps” session