Improvisers’ experiences across neurotypes of participating in improv comedy

Nathan Keates (Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK)
Julie Beadle-Brown (Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK)

Advances in Autism

ISSN: 2056-3868

Article publication date: 12 May 2023

Issue publication date: 16 June 2023

124

Abstract

Purpose

Previous studies have confirmed the potential benefits of participating in theatrical improvisation, including improved mental health, well-being, skills and strategy development. This study aims to explore the experiences of improv (a subset of theatrical improvisation) for autistic, non-autistic, yet neurodivergent and neurotypical people. In particular, it explores whether participants believe that there have been any benefits from participating in improv.

Design/methodology/approach

Twenty adult participants were recruited using snowball sampling. Semi-structured interviews were conducted and analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and qualitative content analysis (QCA). IPA explored the autistic lived experience during improv participation, while QCA sought to identify the benefits gained.

Findings

Implementing IPA allowed for the benefits of improv to be embedded into autistic lived experience. This was aggregated into two themes: “life beyond improv” and “social worlds negative impact”. Findings from QCA found five themes: “creativity and opportunities: the arts and workplace”; “acceptance, cognitive flexibility and rolling with it”; “interpersonal, social and communication skills and human connection”; “gains in mental health, quality of life and wellbeing”; and for just autistic participants, “‘I've gone full autistic’ (and can learn why neurotypicals are like they are)”.

Originality/value

To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is a novel study area that has not been investigated previously.

Keywords

Citation

Keates, N. and Beadle-Brown, J. (2023), "Improvisers’ experiences across neurotypes of participating in improv comedy", Advances in Autism, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 253-265. https://doi.org/10.1108/AIA-09-2022-0047

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Improv comedy (henceforth, improv) is a small subset of theatrical improvisation. Agents of improv learn, rehearse and perform spontaneously to create scenes, songs or stories. They manage this through either premeditated or extemporaneously created games or loose structures. For example, an improviser steps forward from the back of the stage to play out a quick scene based on an audience’s suggestion (this type of game is called verbal wit). Using a similar layout, in the “Armando”, improvisers step out to improvise a series of sketch-like scenes. These are based on an invited guest’s monologue from an audience’s suggestion. Previous literature on this topic has confirmed experiences of theatrical improvisation (including improv) (Keates and Beadle-Brown, 2022). These were added value to one’s life; developments in social and communication skills; a sense of community; and a sense of relaxation. An interview with autistic comedians suggests that there is a valuable community of comedians (Brady et al., 2022). Farahar (2021) suggested that being a part of the (autistic) community improves well-being through increased positive self-identity. In general, performance leads to creative expression and self-advocacy for autistic people (Brady, 2022). Kim et al. (2015) found that inclusive theatre improved autistic children’s self-esteem, empathy and socialisation with other people. Further identification of benefits specifically from improv for a variety of people has included improved well-being for breast cancer survivors (Asher et al., 2021), the feasibility of implementation and the appropriateness of improv for people with intellectual disabilities and mental ill-health (Fabian et al., 2022), and reduction of anxiety and depression symptomology (Felsman et al., 2019; Krueger et al., 2017).

There is a paucity of studies focused on autistic people and improv, with most studies conducted on children or adolescents (Keates and Beadle-Brown, under review), calling for a need to investigate autistic adults’ experiences of this phenomenon. Moreover, there are key considerations to gain a full understanding of the benefits of improv. Firstly, autistic people may have engaged in this specific art form. Individuals may pursue improv as a profession or hobby. In addition, it may be helpful to account for the life experiences of being autistic that may alter the benefits experienced; this includes masking, which commonly occurs with negative consequences for autistic people (Cook et al., 2021). As Pearson and Rose (2021) state, masking can lead to autistic burnout. Furthermore, it is possible that within any form of improv practice, bad experiences may occur (as with any aspect of life). However, this might be more impactful for neurodivergent (a mind that diverges from the dominant societal “normal”, Walker, 2021), including autistic people.

This means that understanding this phenomenon seems best by identifying experiential differences and similarities across neurotypes. Neurotypes refer to subgroups within the natural neurological diversity of the entire population (Walker, 2021). As Shah (2021) and colleagues have discussed in recent years, there are similarities as well as differences between populations. Consequently, a better understanding can be achieved by adopting this approach. Although it is possible that there would be no difference between neurotypes, developing an understanding without assumption is crucial to better understand the gains from improv for neurodivergent and neurotypicals (NTs). For this reason, three categories of neurotypes could be valuable: autistic, neurodivergent yet not autistic (for ease, henceforth written ND) and NT.

This study explored the role and benefits of improv for autistic, ND and NT people. Specifically, this study explored the following questions:

Q1.

Have there been any benefits from participating in the improv? If so, what?

Q2.

What factors of autistic lived experiences change because of improv, if any?

Methods

Participants

Twenty adults (10 autistic and 5 ND and NT) participated in the study. Through snowball sampling, recruitment occurred online via social media; local, national, and international autism organisations; support and social groups; and relevant autism mailing lists. The participants’ ages ranged from 24 to 79 years old, with eight participants identifying as female, nine as male and three as non-binary. Eighteen participants identified themselves as Caucasian, and two characterised themselves as mixed. Of the participants, 40% resided in the UK, 40% in the USA, 10% in Canada, 5% in Australia and 5% in New Zealand.

The demographic characteristics of the participants was collected through a questionnaire completed and emailed to the first author, or answered to the interviewer (e.g. gender identity, age, ethnicity and prior improv experience). ND and NT participants were asked about their diagnoses/how they self-identify in cases without a formal diagnosis (to identify ND participants). Various separate calls went out about all ND diagnoses. Most neurodivergent participants responded to advertisements based on these calls for a specific diagnosis, i.e. dyslexia and ADHD. Although some autistic participants had other ND diagnoses or identities, they were assigned to the autistic group. Importantly, participants were only required to have engaged in a minimum of one improv course.

Procedure

This study was approved from the Tizard Centre ethics committee in September 2020. The interviews were semi-structured to provide scope for discussing what the participants desired. Initially, the questions in the interview schedule were reviewed by the project consultation group (of 21 autistic people) via text-based applications (i.e. emails). The interview schedule was piloted until the questions worked across all the neurotypes (16 people in total). The core questions were provided to all participants before the interview. The interviews lasted 45–120 min. Interviews were conducted by the researcher using Zoom at a convenient time.

Data analysis

The interviews were recorded verbatim and stored in Microsoft Stream on the University’s secure online system. The data were initially analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) to ascertain the lived experiences of participants. However, qualitative content analysis (QCA) (Bengtsson, 2016) was necessary to understand all the specific benefits gained. Through this pragmatic framework, it was believed that nuanced comprehension of the phenomena could be achieved.

IPA is an ideographic process whereby the researcher independently codes each transcript through a seven-stage process (McCormack and Joseph, 2018). Firstly, each interview was analysed separately (i.e. the idiographic process), transcribing each interview, noting initial thoughts in the margin and expanding their thoughts in the other margin (Steps 1 and 2). They then identified the significant content, language and concepts (Step 3). Next, they noted emerging themes for the transcript and highlighted exemplary quotes (creating an extensive audit trail) (Steps 4 and 5). Thereafter, they repeated the above steps for all the other transcripts. In Step 6, the researcher used auditors (in this case, inter-raters) for a robust discussion of the themes. The researcher continued to develop themes during the report writing (Step 7). After all the transcripts were coded, convergent and divergent themes were compared to form the appropriate themes.

QCA is a method of analysing that profits from coding specific details from the participants. This process has four steps: (i) decontextualisation, (ii) recontextualisation, (iii) categorisation and (iv) compilation. Decontextualisation was applied via initial notes and thoughts about what participants were stating (in addition to the IPA), which was recontextualised by collectively understanding the benefits suggested in the interviews (into codes). Thereafter, the codes were categorised and compiled into themes and sub-themes.

All data were analysed using NVivo version 12 and Microsoft Excel® (Version 2111) to support the coding process. All participants’ identifying information (including participants’ names) was pseudonymised.

Inter-rater reliability was achieved by two impartial researchers (from different academic fields) coding 20% of the data to reduce the impact of researcher bias by collectively understanding the data. All researchers came to a complete agreement with all themes. Consideration of alternative interpretations shaped and developed themes through discussion.

Results

Lived experience (interpretative phenomenological analysis)

The initial analysis sought the participants’ lived experiences. In seeking the depth of their experiences, two key themes emerged: for all neurotypes, (i) “life beyond improv”, and for autistics (ii) the “negative impact of the social world”. These themes identified key aspects of their lived experiences as improvisers embedded in the social world.

Life beyond improv (interpretative phenomenological analysis)

“Life beyond improv” expounds on parts of life that create gains and how these can affect improv. Participants mentioned numerous aspects of life are impactful, including being around likeminded or the “right” people, participants’ maturation, development of self-knowledge and Buddhism:

I'm [as an ADHD-er] possibly quite hard work for them [other autistic people] […] for some of them, sometimes. And in return, it's exhausting the amount I have to slow myself down. (Rachel, autistic)

I-I feel like a stronger connection to some of those cultures [Europe and Asia] more than I feel […] to my culture. (Donald, NT)

Negative impact of the social world (interpretative phenomenological analysis)

For autistic people, the neuro-normative social world has been negatively impactful, including leading to masking. For one participant, internalised ableism or self-stigma seemed to exist:

I think me doing drama has been difficult on other people because […] drama is helping me, become more socially well adapted but, sometimes it's at the cost of other people's patience […] there was some theatre going on[…] and people never really told me that, they, weren't, you know, down with, me pursuing [it]. (Bill, autistic)

Another participant hated the arts sector but felt more able within theatre (rather than science or mathematics). This extends beyond this sector to the broader social world:

It's the Arts, it's feral. […] And the Arts is actually quite a dodgy thing, and there's a side to me absolutely hates it. (Pat, autistic)

Some of the autistic participants experienced the need to mask and even accidentally do so after realising they should not have this obligation. Being autistic can be perceived as a fight within oneself related to fitting into the world:

It's still a process of […] working out […] when to, how to. I mean I'm quite adamant that I shouldn't have to [mask]. […] I don't see how we can get our lives lived, in any kind of positive way for ourselves if we're spending all of our times masking, for other people to feel comfortable […] [or] accommodated. (Rachel, autistic)

Consequently, the improv had little impact on these factors. Improv can only be part of their system of being or an activity with which they engage. “Improv is not a panacea” (Del, autistic) and it can only be of value to some people at the right time.

Benefits of improv (qualitative content analysis)

Five themes were identified regarding the benefits of improv from the data through QCA (see Table 1). It is important to note that mental health benefits were not found for NT participants (only other quality of life [QoL] and well-being gains existed).

Theme 1: creativity and opportunities: the arts and the workplace

This theme exemplifies the wide arena for improv to be transferable to performance, the arts and other workplaces. Participants gained skills and comfort at performing including comedy:

It’s also gotten me better at articulating premises, I would say. (Keith, autistic)

[…] the chance to perform which is out of- out of the ordinary for my life […] and then also, I think, developing skills. (Alice, NT)

In addition, improv helped participants engage in other creative endeavours. Thus, the provision of creative development went beyond improv. Participants spoke on improv offering a toolkit of skills and mindset that can help other creative ventures:

[…] the improv come along. It's kind of focused me a bit I guess on that writing[…] (Michael, ND).

Other platforms external to creative-based employment were discussed, whereby the participants would apply their improv practice, such as academia, teaching, leadership and sales. Some participants even applied the practice of improv with their clients, including clients’ self-reflection:

I find it quite beneficial to be able to have a sort of back and forth […] being able to just keep a discussion going […] adding to what they're saying. (Becky, ND)

[…] improv has entered my workplace. […] I'm able to use improv, techniques, or games, to help them, see some things about themselves [clients], gain more insight and awareness. (May, ND)

Theme 2: Acceptance, cognitive flexibility and rolling with it

This theme seems to be a key part of learning that can occur during improv training. Equanimity and creation were prominent aspects of people’s experiences, yet this was not only within improv; some people were keen on this way of being more broadly (e.g. mindfulness, Buddhism), which may have occurred before improv. This aligns to applied improv for people’s lives (i.e. the “spirit” of improv for adventure or similar in everyday life), which is distinct from the onstage improv or the implemented techniques for creativity:

I'm pretty big into meditation […] Always like striving for like equanimity […] improv helps that you’re kind of rolling with whatever comes. (Donald, NT)

It's daily really [to apply improv principles in life]. I mean I do have it tattooed on my arm (shows). (Becky, ND)

Participants discussed benefitting from becoming more accepting and present in life (including with people and their ideas). Acceptance is a broad concept that can be applied in a variety of ways, which can occur on- and off-stage. In the applied sense, acceptance of the moments and people within life can be seen as building on the moment or with the people. The resultant impact seems to be due to cognitive flexibility:

And, to really generally try to accept, things that are happening in my life. ‘Yes, And-ing’ what's going on, with my relationships, my- and my work. (May, ND)

I think that it has helped me very much […] be more flexible, and more able to […] appreciate changes as they come up. And more willing to […] accept things as they are. (Viola, ND)

Lastly, being able to go with the flow (e.g. letting go and trusting in the moment, continuing in the moment, working with whatever happens) and taking risks allowed people to discover and have experiences. This included social contact by risking talking to a stranger or trying new food, such as with the “spirit” of improv:

[…] when you're growing up with autism, you tend to become very set in your ways. […] I was definitely very picky with food when I was younger. […] I was on holiday, in, umm […] Dubrovnik […] [I needed] to ‘Yes, and’ this [food] or otherwise I’m going to starve. So, yeah, and then, low and behold, there were certain dishes there was like this is great […] (Jack, autistic).

Probably actually taking this position with the theatre because we closed in March last year due to COVID and then we had a devastating flood in July which left our theatre inoperable […] you know, job security isn't really there right now […]. Rolling with the punches. (Joan, NT)

Theme 3: interpersonal, social and communication skills and human connection

Gaining interpersonal, social and communication skills occurred for both non- and autistic participants. They mentioned learning and developing this area, exploring skills such as turn-taking for only autistic participants, and cognitive empathy for only NT improvisers:

[…] if you have something, that is, involved in connecting with other human beings, and you have a purpose to it and it's structured, as an autistic person, that makes it easier […] (Jill, autistic).

It certainly I think makes you looser, and in what are often times […] very rigid formats of communication. (Keith, autistic)

The NT participants spoke about human connections and being human. This included developing an understanding of people, their views and perspectives (i.e. appreciating or recognising that people have differing perspectives):

[…] in terms of why I do it and why I want other people to learn it is […] to welcome each other back to humanity. (Gary, NT)

[…] being able to listen to those [people or their] stories and to understand their perspective on things is pretty important […] (John, NT).

In addition to social and communication skills, it was found that improv can be directly applied to life. This feature was beyond what they initially expected to gain from participating in the improv:

[…] even something like, going to a shop and asking for like assistance and help. […] I now have this trick in my mind where I'm like, ‘just pretend you're doing a scene’. (Jack, autistic)

Theme 4: gains in mental health, quality of life and well-being

Improv appears to offer its agents gains in mental health, QoL and well-being. Firstly, mental health benefits were identified only for the two neurodivergent groups. Examples of mental health gains provided by participants included less depression, lower levels of anxiety or stress, gaining acceptance from others and transforming emotions through embodiment and release:

And allows me to be more relaxed. […] when I was younger […] I had have a week or or two where I- where I was basically on an extended depression[…] Improvisation is allowed me to, to kind of break into that. (Del, autistic)

I think there's a mental health part of this. I think, the only place that I was safe from bullying, in a team, was in the improv circle. Um. Because my inappropriateness, was acceptable. (Jo, autistic)

In relation to QoL, participants reported that improv helps improve aspects of emotional well-being, including self-esteem and self-concept (Schalock et al., 2002). All improvisers experienced these and gained confidence, courage and the ability to manage the unexpected:

[Improv] has really helped with my self-confidence, and self-esteem to find something that I'm really good at. (Susan, autistic)

I do end up energized after a show […]. It's just a mood impact. (Elaine, ND)

Participants reported experiencing personal growth through a greater understanding and perception of themselves in a positive light. Therefore, they were afforded freedom to be their creative self (as per self-concept) and to make decisions (e.g. affirming their self-identity through the comparison of the ideal and actual self; Carr, 2003):

[…] the benefit would be, to have kind of creative freedom. […] which is not always present in everyday interactions, 'cause you always having to, monitor what you're saying […] (Susan, autistic).

Improv appeared to be a vehicle for personal development through participants gaining self-control, increasing cognitive competence and reducing the rigidity of thinking. Regarding cognitive competence, participants found improv to be similar to brain exercises (i.e. the games being a mental “workout”, Viola, ND), which improved their concentration and focus, working memory and problem-solving:

Self-control. That element of it […] You never see it enough, you know […] It's this big deal. (Pat, autistic)

But ever since doing improv, just the practice of just speaking and talking, just, […] not holding back on, on what I’m about to say. […] that's one key benefit. (Michael, ND)

With reference to well-being, all neurotype groups discussed elements of hedonistic well-being, which was a key aspect revolving around being happier or experiencing fun and joy. Often, participants suggested that they began improv because it was fun and found more benefits afterwards:

Initially I just started doing it because it seemed […] um […] effortless and fun (laughs). (Gary, NT)

Participants spoke about improv being life affirming, such as improv being their “way of life”, for example, “I can't do the learn, understand, remember, cross-reference thing, that most people do that they think is clever. I have to improvise all the time” (Pat, autistic). Another example is how they see the world as necessary to their life, such as “[…] it's become second nature because I've been doing it for so long” (Del, autistic). In addition, they may experience life affirmation and validation of their chosen activities or professions:

And yeah, it's wow what a life-life affirming moment that was [to hear improv helped their family]. (John, NT)

Theme 5: “I've gone full autistic” (and can learn why neurotypicals are like they are)

This theme explores various aspects that support and foster autistic people in improv. Improv may have helped them to be their autistic selves due to being accepted (and potentially where autistic communication is accepted). Improv seems to have used participants’ autistic strengths and provided opportunities for a more complete understanding of themselves, NTs and the world. Moreover, improv has structures and rules that have been reported to be useful:

Because a lot of autism is you come up with ideas and, the, mental filter in your brain is like that's a bad idea […] improv is a lot of turning that particular filter off and then just doing the thing. (Charlie, autistic)

I think the benefits of actually kind of doing the improv, kind of, in a, in a formal sense is that it-it's, it kind of gives a structure to that, you know […] (Jill, autistic).

In some cases, theatre has provided the opportunity to learn to be themselves (onstage). Participants said that some autistic participants developed into their full autistic self by admonishing the societal pressure for masking:

[…] we were, deliberately being very much ourselves, and not masking. […] This is actually the fact of allowing yourself to be autistic, on stage. (Rachel, autistic)

Discussion

This study sought to explore the experiences of improvisers across neurotypes (autistic; non-autistic yet neurodivergent; and NT). Many of the key findings were across the three neurotype groupings used in this study, which include that improvisers experienced both personal and professional benefits and QoL gains (Theme 4) (research question 1). Neurodivergent (including autistic) improvisers gained mental health benefits, and autistic people spoke about being able to be themselves and better understand NTs. These did not differ across those with improv being their profession or as a hobby.

In addition, autistic experiences of improv included the acknowledgement that the NT world is problematic, and its impact is noticeable (negative impact of the social world (IPA]) (research question 2). Therefore, improv can only help to a certain degree. For example, masking was a longer process for some autistic people, so improv had no perceived effect upon this phenomenon. Similarly, for all neurotypes, there were other facets of their life other than improv that offered benefits.

Neurotypes

Although the benefits found from improv are the same across neurotypes, there are nuances in the differences between the groups’ experiences. For example, in social and communication skills (Theme 3), NTs gain similarly to autistic people; however, as an example, the focus on turn-taking is more prominent for autistic improvisers.

The identities that a person holds may have different effects. As per these participants, an ADHD identity may be more prominent socially with autistic people (as per “life beyond improv”), creating opportunity for social comparison. Such identities from within the in-group suggest that difference builds both self-knowledge (e.g. knowing to socialise with neurodivergent people to whom you would not be an incumbrance) and becoming an outsider within your identity (e.g. the prominence of one identity over another). This is similar to intersectional identities, where both can be “othered” by the other identity (e.g. gender and sexuality and being autistic within one and another’s community; Hillier et al., 2019). Nevertheless, the extent of these experiences for participants was not proposed to be othering but acknowledged as existent.

There has been an increase in the mental ill-health of neurodivergent people (Lai et al., 2019). NTs can have mental health issues (even if not prolonged), so there is likely a plethora of unknown reasons for this not being spoken by these participants. There are two prospective reasons proposed: one is that the use of comedy may support coping without awareness, and the second is that mental ill-health may not be greatly felt. Firstly, comedy use may be less perceptively connected to mental health issues. For example, the use of naturally or unconsciously implemented coping humour may reduce mental ill-health (Martin and Lefcourt, 1983; Newman and Stone, 1996), or these participants have not connected improv to past mental health experiences. Secondly, NTs may not feel the mental ill-health greatly. As per Pilgrim and Rogers (1999), mental ill-health could exist through secondary deviance (“deviant” behaviour from a felt stigmatised identity) that remain if helplessness is sustained. This could mean that NTs would have to experience less helplessness from their deviance (and mental health directly) for this to be true. In turn, the neurodivergent (including autistic) participants have intersectional identities (e.g. non-binary) potentially leading to further labelling that “others” them and sustains the depreciation of mental health.

Quality of life

These findings seem to broadly align with QoL benefits as per Schalock et al.’s (2002) domains. Of the eight domains, this study fits well with seven domains. As mentioned above, the themes depicted the participants’ experiences across four domains (personal development, self-determination, interpersonal relations and emotional well-being) including such examples as rolling with the moment and creative expressivity when considering the complete data set. However, the data also fit social inclusion, rights and material well-being.

Firstly, participants gained rights through acceptance (Theme 2), providing mutual respect, dignity and equality (to some extent). Material well-being could be interpreted from the data, as participants having employment status through improv or using improv in their employment (Theme 1).

Chiefly, social inclusion is apparent through participants being accepted as part of an improv as a community of practice (Wenger, 2002). This would imply that their interactions are scaffolded; for example, networking in improv may include first seeing improvisers perform, or they play with them onstage before meeting them in “real-life”. Furthermore, there is the possibility of a central topic for initiating interactions, such as general improv, or specific past, present or future events or scenes (i.e. as structure and shared practice). One finding of particular importance is acceptance, which is argued to be a core aspect of social inclusion (Robertson, 2010). Autistic identity can be a protective factor for self-esteem and mental health (Cooper et al., 2017). Therefore, within improv, this may occur through the acceptance of their identity. Brady (2022) demonstrated how performance, in general, may lead to better self-advocacy and creative expression. In the same way, the reported findings identified the potential for self-concept within personal growth, affirmation and emotional well-being. Self-determination akin to Causal Agency Theory (Deci and Ryan, 2008, in Shogren, 2015) suggests that acceptance is key and focusing on strength-based approach within “interventions” would help form social inclusion. For autistic people, leveraging strengths and meeting potential executive functioning, such as increased cognitive flexibility, may “better” support self-determination (Shogren et al., 2021).

Well-being

Autistic people may gain both hedonistic and eudaimonic well-being through improv. These findings on why improv has some form of personal importance reiterate how improv is fun and provides happiness (hedonistic well-being; Deci and Ryan, 2008). Yet, the fun stated (often as a reason to begin improv) is not the only benefit. They connect with people, collaborate, develop within the community and give to others through co-creative, social emergent humour and/or theatrical experiences (eudaimonic well-being); therefore, individuals can experience a meaningful life (Baumeister et al., 2013).

According to Ng and Fisher (2013), a multilevel approach to well-being that accounts for all aspects of life would be beneficial. This would entail environmental factors, such as culture (perhaps autistic culture; e.g. Dekker, 1999; Gokh et al., 2018), and structural and systemic barriers. With this in mind, improv will not be enough for (autistic) people in a life with other difficulties, such as discrimination internal or external to improv (prejudice) and a stigmatised identity (self- and social/public-stigma) (ignorance by knowledge, prejudice by attitude and discrimination by behaviour; Thornicroft et al., 2007).

Complicated life

Living in a world predominantly NT can lead to issues (professionally and personally), e.g. the actor’s network being “prissy” (as stated by a participant) and needing to mask is devoid of their actual self-concept. For personal life, a complication could occur through the experience of unmasking and the obstacles of trying such after many years of unconsciously doing so. Masking occurs from the political power structures of oppression, creating a stigmatised identity (Tyler, 2020), and positioning autistic individuals within a social system in which the interaction-based consequence (i.e. masking and passing) occurs; therefore, breaking from these can be a difficult process. Nonetheless, the duality of masking and theatre may not be an issue. Some participants experienced a release from being onstage as themselves.

Nevertheless, the theatre industry (amateur and professional) may have practices that “other” autistic people. It is not that negative experiences in life are definite, because in everyday life, some autistic people may not feel the impact like others. However, in cultural and creative industries, these practices may lead to systems that are not conducive to autistic theatre professionals or students.

In any case, autistic socialisation and dyads are often discussed as easier or better than within the neuro-normative social world (Crompton et al., 2020). The affirmation experienced from an autistic space can be a revelation for autistic people (for a description of Autscape, see Buckle, 2019). In contrast, it can create such an adverse difference upon exiting back into the neuro-normative social world (on the differences, struggles and ease between social worlds, see Idriss, 2021). This positions improv similar to an autistic space, at least for some as per the findings. Regardless of the neurotype, maturation was a factor to consider; as one grows older, it becomes easier to understand oneself and the way of the world.

Limitations

The diversity of ethnicity and the Anglo-centric nature of the research meant that participants needed to be fluent in English, which limits to whom these data represent. In the same way, participants needed access to the internet.

Future directions

Further research should identify when certain populations of people can find value in any activity or social engagement; this is based on the current insight that the right time for some people is varied. In the same way, an action research study can identify what works and does not work in an “intervention” or course on improv. Of interest would be to understand the experience of autistic adults new to learning improv, including any benefits such as mental health.

Conclusion

This study aimed to explore the experiences of improvisers across neurotypes (autistic, non-autistic yet neurodivergent and NT). Neurotypes were not found to vary the experience that improvisers had beyond two key aspects: mental health not being mentioned by NTs and autistic responses to neuro-normativity in life. Nonetheless, neurotypes did not prospectively seem to matter as much as like-mindedness. Across all improvisers, participants discussed benefits related to QoL and well-being. An important context seems to be the negative impact of the neuro-normative social world. Some may not experience stigmatisation of themselves, whereas others may. In addition, all improvisers had other facets of life that helped.

Themes and sub-themes

Theme titles Sub-theme titles
1. Creativity and Opportunities: the arts and the workplace Skills and comfort at improvising, performance, and comedy Creative development Other platforms for using improv
2. Acceptance, cognitive flexibility, and rolling with it Enabling creation, equanimity, onstage and in life Accepting, risk and being present in life (including people and their ideas) Enables you to go with the flow and take risks
3. Interpersonal, social and communication skills and human connection Social communication skills, including empathy and interpersonal connections Human connection and being human
4. Gains in mental health, quality of life and well-being Helps personal development, self-determination and increase in emotional well-being Hedonistic well-being Life affirming
5. “I've gone full autistic” (and can learn why neurotypicals are like they are) (Autistics only) Helps be autistic self, due being accepted Identifies autistic strengths in improv Opportunity for more of a complete understanding of self, NTs and the world Has a structure and rules that are useful

Source: Author’s own work

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank their autistic community stakeholders that were involved in the research, and the authors thank them for their contributions to this study. In addition, the first author received exceptional support from colleagues: Krysia Waldock, Josie Collins and Steve Easter. The authors would also like to thank the peer reviewers for their guidance through the review process.

Corresponding author

Nathan Keates can be contacted at: nk411@kent.ac.uk

About the authors

Nathan Keates is based at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. He is a Lecturer and PhD candidate in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at the University of Kent. His research comes from the social science perspective (psychology and sociology) investigating autism and neurodiversity, disability, comedy and theatre performance.

Julie Beadle-Brown is based at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. Prof Julie Beadle-Brown is a Professor in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at Kent and Professor in Disability at La Trobe University, Australia.

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