Encinitas artist uses performing arts experience to serve those with autism, other disabilities

Kathryn Campion sits on a wooden bench outside, smiling at the camera, with grass in the background
Kathryn Campion is the co-founder and executive director of Positive Action Community Theatre, an Encinitas nonprofit that uses dance and theater training to help people with autism connect with peers, master social skills, and enjoy the arts.
(Bill Wechter / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kathryn Campion is co-founder and executive director of Positive Action Community Theatre, a nonprofit organization in Encinitas that uses dance and theater training to help people with autism connect with their peers, master social skills, and enjoy the arts


The goal was to start a nonprofit community theater that would serve the general public by teaching its participants life skills. Kathryn Campion co-founded Positive Action Community Theatre in 2008 with William Simonson (the pair later married in 2009), with both of them using their previous years of involvement in performing arts to create something new and provide a service. That service, it turns out, would find them through the parents and kids who began showing up to their workshops.

“After a local paper ran a story about our new organization, parents began registering their children with autism in our workshops. These kids loved the workshops and most of them showed an interest in the arts, to the shock of many parents,” says Campion, who’s also executive director of the organization. “They were showing a rare attraction to social interaction, and they were often eager to return to the next workshop. We realized that bringing people with autism into a performing arts environment is both healing and empowering for them. And fun.”

The parents of those children began joining PACT’s board and teaching staff, helping to develop the nonprofit’s curricula, and cultivating a community of artists, to include hiring some of the long-term participants with autism as teachers, actors, and script writers for the organization’s PACTHOUSE PLAYERS theater troupe.

Campion, 69, lives in Encinitas with her husband, Simonson, and she has an adult daughter who lives in Carlsbad and works with children with autism as a therapist. Campion took some time to talk about her work with PACT and why it’s been so important to her.

Q: Tell us about Positive Action Community Theatre.

A: PACT uses theater and dance training to bring people with autism out of isolation and into connection with their peers to express of the joy of the arts and master the social skills that are their greatest challenge.

Q: Your bio on the organization’s website says that, early on in the operation of PACT, parents were bringing their kids who had autism to your theater workshops. What do you think was the appeal of PACT, to those parents and kids?

A: The parents that initially brought their kids with autism to our workshops were already aware of the power of the performing arts to improve the lives of their children. Also, our workshops were being offered at no cost, and I’m sure this was appealing to families who were taxed with the added expenses of raising a child with disabilities.

These parents were very happy to have found us. Some of them told us that their children had been rejected from other local theater groups because their sometimes unusual behavior made the performances “imperfect.” We were uninterested in creating a perfect performance. Our goal was to use the performing arts as a vehicle to serve these children. Their parents provided a very appreciative audience at our low-stress performances for the families at the end of each eight-week workshop cycle.

Q: Did the experience of having a sizeable number of kids on the autism spectrum joining your theater group change the way you thought about and approached your work with PACT?

A: I feel like I became fully engaged in PACT after we began serving kids with autism. Theater for its own sake had never been enough for me, and this became an opportunity to utilize the performing arts to transform. Since then, it has been a living process of learning and adapting. Sometimes when you put two things together — in this case, people with autism and the performing arts — there is a spark of illumination that had been otherwise unavailable.

What I love about Encinitas ...

I love that we have a greenbelt nearby with lots of grass and trees for daily walks. I love that I am 10 minutes from my daughter’s house. I love that there are all ages and nationalities in our apartment complex.

Q: How do you tailor your programs at PACT to empower people with special needs, specifically?

A: We focus on including everyone. We start the workshops with ice breaker circle games where everyone shares something about themselves. We encourage positivity and discourage any kind of disrespect. We don’t focus on creating a perfect performance, as there is a wide variety of talent and ability at the workshops. Everyone’s expression is accepted as it is, and we are not trying to impress anyone.

When we were providing in-person dance workshops, we would sometimes assign an assistant workshop director or volunteer to be a participant’s “buddy,” who would stand next to the person, give them prompts, and help them engage in the activities.

Because structure is reassuring to some with autism, especially in a strange environment, we posted a schedule of the day’s workshop activities at our in-person workshops, as well as the ground rules, on a white board. In-person workshops usually began with the group taking turns reading the ground rules.

Q: What have you been most proud of, in terms of what PACT has accomplished, since you began in 2008?

A: I’m proud that we have contributed to the wellbeing of many people with autism through our workshops, and that we have given a sense of belonging to these often isolated individuals. I’m proud that parents have reported that we have helped their family members to master social and communication skills and to reconnect with peers. I’m proud that we employ and train some amazing people with autism as teachers, actors, and script writers. I’m proud that the heart of this organization has continued to beat in these changing and challenging times.

Q: How did your love of theater and performing begin? And what has sustained that love of theater for you over the years?

A: I began performing classical piano at the age of 7, and won multiple awards in piano tournaments throughout grade school. Even though I was shy, I enjoyed feeling like I was excelling at something. I participated in choirs and theater classes throughout high school and played the lead in our school play. In college, I toured with an a cappella choir. As a young adult, I joined an improv theater group, recorded three albums of original songs, and performed at a variety of community events. I then began using the performing arts more directly as an act of service by producing and performing at a series of large-scale concerts to benefit the homeless and veterans.

Q: Why is your work with PACT important to you?

A: It is a wonderful thing to have found a way to serve. I have greatly enjoyed developing new programs, adapting them to fill current needs, and interacting with the autism community.

I have enjoyed giving people with autism and other developmental disabilities the opportunity to join others in expressing an art. Because autism is isolating, the camaraderie of the performing arts means a great deal in their ability to join and enjoy life and have the momentum to realize their goals.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: I remember someone saying to imagine yourself on your deathbed, thinking about the things in your life that you are very glad you did. Make sure you do those things.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I was a hippy in the 1970s. I traveled through many of the U.S. states and into Canada, sometimes hitch-hiking without a dime in my pocket. I learned a lot about trusting in the goodness of life to sustain me, and I learned to rely on my intuition above all.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: I love to go for walks at the beach. Because I work from home and because one of our weekly workshops is on Saturday, the weekdays and weekends kind of blend together.

— Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune