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Positive Action Community Theatre (PACT) participants pose for a picture. The nonprofit was founded in 2008 to get youth and adults with autism involved in performing arts. Photo courtesy Kathryn Campion
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Participants with autism find outlet in the performing arts

ENCINITAS — A theater group in Encinitas has been empowering people with autism for more than a decade after discovering that the performing arts are a “match made in heaven” for teaching them social and communication skills.

Positive Action Community Theatre, or PACT, is a nonprofit that was co-founded in 2008 by Kathryn Campion and her husband William Simonson. Campion said her husband had a lot of experience in professional and community theater and TV, and she has been involved in the performing arts since she was 5, and previously worked in nonprofit management. She said they began providing theater and dance workshops that taught life skills to the general public, and very soon after they opened, parents began registering their kids with autism in their workshops.

“It was soon clear to everyone that we were helping these children to reconnect with their peers and to express themselves,” Campion said. “Inspired, we decided to focus all our attention on teaching social skills to people with autism through the performing arts.”

Campion said each year PACT serves about 50 kids, teens, and adults, the majority of which have autism, but others have disabilities like ADHD, Down’s syndrome, and brain damage. The theater group offers two eight-week workshops — one an improvisational theater workshop, the other a performing arts workshop — every winter, spring, summer and fall. She said once participants join their workshops, “virtually all of them stay with us.”

Campion says she’s read results of studies that say one of the most difficult parts about autism is that it is isolating and that can result in some people taking their own lives.

“They rarely bond with fellow students while in school, and are more likely to be bullied,” she said. “After high school few of them attend higher education, and many of them remain dependent on their parents or on government programs as adults. We are very happy to have found ways to fill these needs.”

Campion said in addition to them taking part in the workshops, they have hired seven people with autism and other disabilities, as teachers, one-on-one aides, DJs, videographers, ensemble actors and script writers.

“Our ultimate goal is to one day turn PACT’s leadership over to a team of people with autism and other disabilities,” she said. “In the meantime, we see all aspects of PACT’s operations as potential apprentice opportunities.”

One such teacher is Jacob Redmon, son of PACT’s artistic director, Sandy Redmon. Redmon, 23, said his mom encouraged him to start taking the workshops when he was in middle school.

“I wasn’t much of an outspoken person myself,” said Redmon, who said he’s on the autism spectrum. “I had trouble reaching out of my comfort zone, I had trouble talking to people. I was in different support groups and so this was one of the groups that was helping.”

Redmon transitioned into teaching and says he’s now been instructing for at least five years. The workshops he teaches, he says, start with a warmup, which includes stretching, yoga, and some relaxation exercises that help put their mind and body at ease. Then they go into icebreakers, doing activities that help get to know each other better. After that comes vocal warm-ups.

“A very common thing you’ll see with many people on the autism spectrum is that they have trouble fully expressing themselves, and a key thing to that is their voice,” Redmon said. “So, we start them off by doing classic vocal warmups — we stretch out our mouth, we annunciate our words, we do tongue twisters.”

Then he says they get into the “meat” of the program — theater games — which teaches participants how to figure out social cues by using improv. Redmon said people on the autism spectrum tend not to react well to social cues or miss them altogether.

“It’s just that you don’t have as good an inclination towards certain social norms,” he said. “When it comes to social situations you aren’t strong, you don’t pick up a lot of things. One thing that I’ve been told is I tend to take things literally, I don’t tend to pick up on hidden meanings, or body language.”

Campion said some things coming up for PACT include the branching out of a traveling theater troupe they do, called PACTHOUSE PLAYERS, which developed an anti-bullying theater event called Beyond Bullying, that they’ve been performing for teens in the community. They are now developing an elementary aged version of Beyond Bullying that they plan to perform at schools this fall and winter, including a performance at Dance North County in Encinitas in the near future.

And they have a full year of children’s workshops planned for 2020.  The first eight-week series begins on Jan. 25, 2020, in Encinitas.

Redmon says working at a nonprofit you’re not aiming to make a killing, but the reward is something greater than money.

“What motivates us is knowing that other kids that are having trouble figuring out the world, are scared, are having trouble navigating the social circle, seeing them happily coming back, actively participating and giving us their own ideas and performances,” he said. “That’s some of the best pay we could ever get.”