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Reflections on the International Autism Conference: Siberia

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Guest blogger and Upfront network member, Melissa Daly of Birmingham Rep Theatre, reflects on her fascinating trip to Siberia; attending the International Autism Conference and getting a glimpse of special needs education in a very different culture.

(Photo of Melissa)

 

 

On the 31st October 2015, I set off on a journey to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Richard Hayhow (Open Theatre Company) had been invited to share his theatre practice at The International Conference Comprehensive Support for people with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder – which is now widely referred to as ‘Autistic Spectrum Condition’ in the UK) from the 5 -7 November 2015. I have been working closely with Richard for some time now and was delighted to go along and support him in this.

I work as an Education Officer for The Birmingham Repertory Theatre with a focus on working with young people with learning disabilities (ypwld). Most of my working week is spent delivering drama sessions in Mayfield Special School with young people aged from 3 -19 who have a range of learning disabilities. After six months in the school, I started to feel slightly out-of-my-depth and was concerned that many of the drama activities were not accessible for the young people I was working with. This sparked my journey to discover a new way of working which could engage these young people in a meaningful way.

For almost two decades, Richard Hayhow has been developing theatre with young people and children with learning disabilities, within the education sector and beyond. The practice, which we have labelled ‘mimetics’, focuses upon non-verbal, physical action and interaction as the heart of all human communication and the leveller across differences. Much of the work undertaken within current theatre practice is heavily verbal and often conceptual at its heart. By its very nature it tends to exclude young people with learning disabilities who rely on means of communication other than the verbal. This experimental mimetics approach, with its roots in psycho-physical ensemble actor-training, has been adapted to enable a genuinely collaborative approach to communicating and tomaking theatre with young people with learning disabilities.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk

Melissa Daly and Richard Hayhow

 

One of the exciting challenges during our trip, was to see how non-verbal physical theatre practice works in a country where you don’t speak the language – so you have to be able to really communicate non-verbally. We were also curious to see whether there are cultural differences in non-verbal communication that would inhibit the communication or whether our non-verbal communication is a ‘universal language’. Having been trained by Richard in this practice, this trip to Siberia was a once in a lifetime opportunity to further develop my skills and to explore the education system in another country.

We had the pleasure of working with a number of young people throughout our stay in Krasnoyarsk as well as presenting at the conference. What struck me most about the education system in Siberia was the lack of special educational provision. As a result of this, parents had been inspired to play a central role in creating more suitable opportunities for their young people.

We visited an organisation called ‘Open Hearts’ to deliver a drama workshop and it was wonderful to see a group of parents working so closely together to engage ypwld. This project is fantastic but it was quite disconcerting that only a small number of schools and young people would benefit from it. I was also very surprised that this project seemed to be driven by the parents and not necessarily by the education authorities. This was also apparent after a visit to Raduga Rehabilitation Centre, Light of Hope and MumiDom Centre. A highlight of the week would have to be our trip to Social Homestead “Dobraya” where we were welcomed with fantastic hospitality and lots of snow! The facilities here were very impressive (they even had an outdoor theatre!!) and I could only imagine all of the wonderful vocational activities ypwld could take part in here. Once again, it appeared that this had been set up and run by a family of a young boy with autism who were aware of the lack of suitable provision for ypwld.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk 4

Melissa Daly with workshop participants

After just a few days in Krasnoyarsk, I started to consider how different this was from our set up in the United Kingdom. We have a much more developed Special Education system but do we have the same level of parent engagement? I couldn’t help but wonder how we could enhance our provision in the UK by engaging with parents more and encouraging them to take a more active role in the work we do with their young people. The conference itself was very informative and it was encouraging to hear that the Russian Education Minister is in the process of creating a special education system which will enhance the learning and development of ypwld in Russia. A highlight would have to be Richard successfully encouraging 500 delegates to take part in a mirroring exercise as we presented our work on stage at the conference. It was a wonderful moment!


On our final day in Krasnoyarsk, we delivered a teacher training session for around 40 adults and a small group of ypwld. Their enthusiasm and openness to the work was overwhelming and the atmosphere in the room was electric. It would have been great to have had more time to have conversations with the parents who were creating all of these opportunities and making a real difference to the lives of these young people. I left Siberia feeling inspired and amazed at how we had managed to share our theatre practice with so many people despite the fact we could not hold a conversation with most of them due to language barriers. In fact, we found there to be no real challenge in just communicating non-verbally during our time there. It felt like we were all sharing a universal language that we just knew inherently and it created a real sense of ensemble and an understanding between all of us. If we are to continue to create meaningful opportunities for ypwld then we must continue to look outside of the work we are doing individually and begin to share our practice as widely as possible. Krasnoyarsk is also a beautiful place and we met some truly wonderful people who I do hope to meet again one day.

Article and photos provided by Melissa Daly. With thanks to Richard Hayhow of Open Theatre, and Birmingham Rep.

Drama workshops - Krasnoyarsk 2

Melissa and Richard with workshop participants, Siberia