More than a diagnosis

(Emily Thurlow) CIP Berkshire’s spring production touches on the challenges of ASD and learning differences in the play, “Through the Learning Glass.”

LEE — An original play has set the stage for area drama students to explore the challenges and perceptions of autism spectrum disorder and learning differences.

College Internship Program (CIP) Berkshire is presenting its spring production, “Through the Learning Glass,” over the course of two nights at Spectrum Playhouse in Lee.

CIP, which is headquartered in Lee, was established as the Transitional Apartment Program (TAP) in 1984. At the time, community-based programs and housing for young adults with learning and emotional difficulties was needed, said Dr. Michael McManmon, founder of CIP.

“Prior to this time, students with any learning or emotional difference were institutionalized. The movement to close these institutions that were detrimental to students became impetus for the creation of TAP,” said McManmon in a statement. “Community-based programs allowed students to live and work in the community and to learn all the life skills, employment skills, and social skills to integrate into society.”

Since then, TAP has evolved into CIP, which developed a comprehensive curriculum to train students in all those areas and provided supports over the years, such as sensory integration, counseling, internships, social thinking and mentors. In addition to the Lee location, CIP has four other locations in Indiana, Florida and California.

Using Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Other Stories as a loose guide, Through the Learning Glass is based on the individual experiences of CIP’s drama students.

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, CIP’s Creative Arts Coordinator Kara Demler searched for plays that could be geared toward celebrating celebrate neurodiversity. But she didn’t find many.

“I was pretty shocked at just how little there was about learning challenges,” said Demler.

So, Demler decided she’d work with her drama students to create their own.

When one of her students equated navigating the world as someone that was not neurotypical to that of Alice spiraling into wonderland, Demler got writing. Combined with script materials courtesy of Ian Stakland, Hannah Long, Sam Walsh and Nic Fuller, Through the Learning Glass started to fall into place.

In CIP’s version of the play, the traditional character of Alice has a learning difference, but doesn’t know she has it. Throughout the performance, the character learns of that difference and tries to understand how she fits into the wold. Alice also expresses how worried she is about what others think of her.

“I worry what people think of me a lot,” Alice says. “I think sometimes they’re laughing at me.”

Other characters help to reinforce that no matter how frustrated she may be, how others see her doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all in how she sees herself. And for students like 22-year-old Jared Levey, the characters in Through the Learning Glass serves as a platform to share personal experiences and challenges with autism spectrum disorder, which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as an opportunity to better educate people on the matter.

“I am not defined by my difference. My diagnosis does not define me,” said Levey, a native of West Chester, New York.

Levey, who is a theatre major at Berkshire Community College, has aspirations of teaching at CIP some day. Describing himself as high-functioning, Levey said that oftentimes, people have misconceptions about autism spectrum disorder.

The American Psychiatric Association merged four distinct autism diagnoses — autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified and Asperger syndrome — into one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in 2013. And because it’s autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a set of distinct strengths and challenges, which means that the ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged.

Autism affects an estimated one in 59 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to a deeper understanding of the spectrum, the play also offers another opportunity for students to learn how to self-advocate, said Demler. Students are encouraged to let their supervisors know what works best for them, whether that means visual lists, repetition or having things broken down into steps, she said. That could even mean practicing asking for a break or verbalizing what students do or don’t feel comfortable with.
Above all, Through the Learning Glass shines a light on another part of the spectrum, said 23-year-old Ian Stakland, a native of Iowa and theatre major at Berkshire Community College.

“Some people only see the person freaking out in line at the grocery store. What they don’t see or know is that person is advanced in areas like computers or other technical jobs, for example,” said Stakland. “There’s more than one side of autism. This (play) helps make people more aware of those other sides.”

Performances for Through the Learning Glass will take place at 20 Franklin St. in Lee at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 25 and Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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