Encinitas theater group helps those with autism learn to act — and react

Local theater group PACT is where imagination plays a role in helping people handle real situations.

Founded by Encinitas residents Kathryn Campion and William Simonson, the nonprofit teaches social and life skills to teens and adults with autism and other special needs. This is accomplished through improvisational and performance workshops, in-school programs, and group meetings to help those with high-functioning autism/Asperger’s find jobs.

The group’s mission “is to empower individuals with unique needs and create community,” and it receives funding through tuition, grants and individual donations.

However, when it was initially started in 2008, PACT (Positive Action Community Theatre) had a different focus. Known at the time as Encinitas Community Theatre, the group served the general public. It was the brainchild of two veteran performers: Campion, who has played classical piano since age 7; and Simonson, who has been involved in more than 100 theater and TV productions in roles such as lead actor, director and stage manager. Campion also had experience with nonprofits, serving as a regional director of the Joy of Sports Foundation, where she developed and directed programs that taught life skills through physical activities to low-income children.

Initially, PACT held theater workshops for the general community and high-risk youths, but the group started drawing the attention of parents with children on the autism spectrum. One of those parents was Sandy Redmon, whose son, Jacob, has Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder with characteristics that include difficulties with social interaction and nonverbal communication.

Redmon had read an article about PACT and was searching for a group that fit Jacob’s needs. She recalled her own theater and dance background, and realized that many of the skills she had learned could benefit her son. However, Redmon was unsure about calling attention to Jacob and putting him in a potentially stressful social situation, so she hesitated. But finally, she called Campion, who was receptive to the idea of allowing those on the autism spectrum to join.

At first, the group’s structure did not work for Jacob.

“My fear was somewhat justified, because he refused to even stand up and say his name,” Redmon said. “The teen/adult class was structured more like an actor’s workshop, where individuals would perform monologues and do cold readings and get direction from the instructor and feedback from the audience.”

But Redmon persisted in seeking a solution for her son, and started speaking to friends with autistic children about joining the theater group. Through word of mouth, PACT grew in popularity, especially with the autism community, and Redmon maintained regular contact with Campion.

Finally, Campion asked Redmon whether she would be interested in teaching and developing the curricula, and Redmon stepped up to the task. She drew upon her experiences and education, which included a bachelor of arts degree from North Texas State University with an emphasis in communications, theater and dance; teaching dance at the YMCA; working in human resources; obtaining a master of arts degree in social and psychological services; and being employed as a corporate trainer at Advanced Micro Devices in Austin, Texas.

Redmon also incorporated her yoga teacher training and meditation into the workshops, which she had found effective in redirecting Jacob’s anxious behavior, and life skills that she had learned as a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop.

“She’s (Sandy) an incredible teacher. … She has been such a gift to the organization,” Campion said.

Today, PACT offers several options to people on the autism spectrum.

The longest-running program is the eight-week Saturday workshops — improvisational theater and performance arts — primarily designed for ages 12 and older. Each class is 12 to 15 students: a blend of people with autism and peer mentors who volunteer their time to model life skills and social behaviors by “being themselves.”

“We don’t talk about disabilities at all,” Campion said. “Everyone is equal.”

During the improvisational theater workshop, which is held from 2:30 to 4 p.m., students begin with stretching and relaxation. Next, they transition into ice-breaker activities, which allow them to practice social skills such as dialogue, eye contact, listening and memory. Redmon said most of the time in the theater workshops is spent doing improvisational theater games and activities that develop an understanding of appropriate and respectful emotional and behavioral responses in the participants. The students are also asked to pretend they are in certain social situations, and they must improvise how to resolve them.

For the performing arts workshop — held immediately after improvisational theater, from 4 to 5 p.m. — the group learns and performs six songs. They sing three of them, using lyric sheets — since memorization is sometimes challenging for the youths — and perform choreographed dances to the other three.

Campion noted that the workshops are a bonding experience for those on the spectrum.

“They ‘get’ each other,” she said. “They develop friendships with each other, and hang out with each other.”

The cost of the improvisational theater workshop is $175, while the performance theater is $150. There is a flexible scholarship program and sliding scale fees, and the cost is free for volunteers.

While primarily based in Encinitas, PACT also aids special-needs students in two area schools. Since January 2013, PACT has been providing a grant-funded program to students with autism at The Country School in San Marcos, using the same format as the Saturday workshops. And last October, PACT began helping youths with developmental disabilities at Excelsior Academy in San Diego. The nonprofit is seeking funds to continue the program there.

While PACT’s emphasis is on theater, it recently introduced the free Goldmine Advocates Program, or GAP, to help high-functioning autism/Asperger’s adults to find jobs. Campion noted that job-searching is especially hard for high-functioning people because they know what they’re capable of doing, yet they have difficulty in the interview process because of their social skills. Program participants meet bimonthly for brainstorming sessions, and one-on-one consultations are available as well. Campion added that the long-range goal is for PACT to establish a business or organization run by people with autism.

In the meantime, PACT’s efforts are being noted by the community. Last month, San Dieguito Academy chose the nonprofit to receive all the donations and proceeds from its Theater for a Cause production, “Of Mice and Men.”

“It was a real honor for us, and made us feel part of the community,” Campion said.

And PACT is also having positive influences on its participants. For instance, it took a while for Jacob Redmon to adjust to the program, but once he did, “he flourished,” Sandy Redmon said. “It was like a light bulb went on.”

Jacob went on to play Aladdin in San Marcos High School’s production last year, and has since graduated. He is now taking theater classes in college and helping with the PACT program, and has become a very outgoing individual.

“The intention is for us to be (here) for a long time,” Campion said. “I’m not going anywhere, and (those with autism are) not going anywhere.”

For information about PACT, call 760-815-8512, email info@pacthouse.org or visit www.pacthouse.org.

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