Filmmaker and educator Suzanne Cohen talks about her experiences of delivering media projects at the British Museum.
I have been facilitating weeklong film projects for young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) (13 – 19 years) in the summer holidays for the last seven years with an organization called Camden Summer University in collaboration with speech and language therapists from Whittington Health NHS.
Most of the courses have been hosted by the British Museum which is an excellent venue as it offers a large classroom plus lots of break out spaces for small group work, access to the collection and a very supportive environment created by Education Manager Katharine Hoare who we work closely with.
My role has been to devise exciting projects inspired by the location/exhibitions using a range of filmmaking techniques, which develop vocational skills. The end product is screened at a cinema in the British Museum in the Camden Summer University Young People’s Film Festival, which motivates us to do bigger and better things each year.
Of course the other important aim is to develop communication and interpersonal skills through group work. This gives the participants the opportunity to meet and make friends with other young people with similar interests who also have social communication difficulties or ASD.
Kate Bayley (Speech and Language Therapist – Team Leader) explains that ‘the course targets a number of vital skills for adulthood such as confidence, teamwork and independence. Social anxiety and individual needs can be supported by the therapists, so that the young people are free to focus on enjoying the galleries of the British Museum, and learning film skills from a professional. The feedback we get from young people and parents is that this can be a huge step in these young people’s lives!’
I was new to working with young people with ASD and initially I found it a struggle because things seemed to move slowly due to a range of issues which varied from student to student. These included short attention spans, focusing in on minute details, difficulties sharing and accepting others opinions, and lacking confidence/proficiency with IT.
In addition the young people with ASD found it difficult at times to be flexible and work in groups which led to some arguments and conflicts with each other. Increasing the number of adults present helped to ensure that everyone could supported to engage in the group as much as they wanted whilst allowing them opportunities to be taken out of the group situation if things became overwhelming for them. This year we had ten young people plus nine adults (myself and an assistant, a parent and 7 speech and language therapists per day). Some of the young people knew each other from previous years and it was lovely to see them becoming more comfortable within the group situation.
The speech and language therapists have helped me to adapt my teaching for working with groups of young people with ASD, in the following ways:
- Tightly structured activities, which get looser as the week progresses.
- Presenting lesson plans on the board at the start of each section so expectations are clear and students know what to focus on now and what is happening next.
- Explaining abstract concepts more thoroughly using simple unambiguous language and visual examples wherever possible
- Including movement breaks to assist concentration and help students calm down or re-energise accordingly.
- Class discussions need some preparation to be fruitful, e.g. break out into pairs first to enable them time and space to sound out or write down their views with others before contributing to the whole group .
The concept of ‘The Secret Museum’ animation was inspired by the mini tours we had been given to areas of the museum, which are not accessible to the public. The story is about a youth group on a day trip to the museum. We focus on four characters that get distracted by something and are lured away into a secret realm where they encounter an object come to life. Finally they come out of the situation unscathed returning to normality.
The idea was to make a collaborative film where each small group devised a main character and wrote and directed their particular storyline. I provided the narrative structure in order to pull the whole thing together and to help the students to create a more focused storyline. The speech and language therapists encouraged the use of interior monologues to develop empathy skills.
We used stop frame animation rather than live action party because the young people found exaggerated characterisation , facial expressions and movements easier to perform than ‘natural’ acting skills.
Each group storyboarded, shot, acted in and edited their sections, which were combined into a 4.5 minute film. You can see the results here (https://t.co/J3cdhd9gen); it is brimming with ideas and humour and is technically very proficient.
It has been great to see some of the young people returning year after year. I find the groups stimulating to teach and think the work they produce is very unique.