The Second City Launches Courses for Kids With Autism

By Christina Elston

special needs

Maya Miletich plays a theater game with some of her Zip Zap Zop students. PHOTO COURTESY ZIP ZAP ZOP

The Second City – which has locations in Chicago, Toronto and Hollywood – has been a launching pad for theater and comedy talent for decades. Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey are some of the institution’s more recent alumni.

The venue also offers kids comedy, acting and writing classes. And this month, for the first time, the Hollywood location launches a program just for kids with developmental disabilities. In partnership with the nonprofit enrichment program Zip Zap Zop, The Second City is launching “Inclusive Improv: For Kids With Autism and Beyond.”

Maja Miletich, CEO and co-founder of Zip Zap Zop, has a brother with autism and a background in child development, and has studied improv and sketch comedy at The Second City. She says she is excited at the prospect of having children with special needs attend class at The Second City, and that sometimes kids with autism have an advantage in learning improvisation exercises. “Children with autism at times can click into these games even moreso than those without autism,” she says.

special needs

Zip Zap Zop students play a theater game. PHOTO COURTESY ZIP ZAP ZOP

In explaining how improv activities are adapted for children with autism, Miletich chooses a game called “One-Sentence Story.” In most improv classes, students would play this game by taking turns going on stage and adding one sentence to a story the group is creating. But in the Inclusive Improv class, students will sit in a circle while they take turns contributing to the story. And the instructor will use picture cards or other cues to help children who do not speak add their input. “It’s taking these games and adapting them to each child’s individual goals,” says Miletich.

Those goals might include facilitating group interaction and collaboration, or helping kids learn appropriate tone of voice, body language and awareness. Some of the games can also help students with communication, listening and observing skills, teach them to be more flexible and to think on their feet, or help them make eye contact more consistently and pick up on others’ nonverbal cues.

And the exercises can help a wide range of kids, from the child who “has lots of energy and lots to say, but needs an appropriate time and place to say it,” to the child who needs to break out of their shell, according to Miletich.

The first session of classes will be held from 2-3:30 p.m. for seven Saturdays beginning Jan. 28. They will be taught by Zip Zap Zop Curriculum Specialist Will Todisco, who has a degree in theater and has helped public schools create improvisational theater programs for children on the autism spectrum. Tuition is $270.

Miletich points out that most of us use improvisation skills on a regular basis. Having a conversation with someone or navigating most everyday social situations is a form of improvisation. “That doesn’t always come easy for children who are not that socially in tune,” she says. This new improvisation class is a fun way for these kids to build confidence and skills, and connect with the world around them.

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