Superheroes Create Superpowers for Those With Autism

Medical student Michele DeMuth develops superhero playwriting workshop for tweens and teens.

Jennifer Formiglia-Jackson could barely get the words out before her daughter, Bethany, began beaming at the chance to participate in Jefferson’s superhero playwriting workshop for tweens and teens with autism.

“Her eyes lit up,” Formiglia-Jackson recalls. “She kept saying, ‘Yes!’”

supergirl and the stolen city cover
Supergirl and Wonder Woman team up to battle the Joker in Bethany's story.

In early February, Bethany headed into Center City and paired up with Sidney Kimmel Medical College student Sarah Humrich to write a short play about a superhero. The 15-year-old then performed her story, “Supergirl and the Stolen City,” in front of the group after a few hours of prep and wordsmithing. (Read it here.)

“She thought that was so cool,” Formiglia-Jackson says. “I saw Bethany’s confidence level soar.”

Fourth-year medical student Michele DeMuth developed the playwriting workshop at Jefferson with a dual purpose in mind. First, it served as a fun, creative outlet for a population that can struggle with social skills. Second, the program helped strengthen medical students’ communication with people who may require special medical services and understanding.

Bethany Jackson worked with medical student Sarah Humrich to write a short play about a superhero.

Her idea for the program formed before medical school when she worked at a camp for children with autism. While there, DeMuth noticed how the teens’ anxiety dipped as they worked on a talent show. This experience built the foundation that continued at Jefferson where she entered the humanities scholarly inquiry track and then wrote a play through the Empathy Project.

After seeing firsthand how cathartic crafting a play could be, DeMuth felt a workshop for this group—with student mentors—would be particularly beneficial. While arts-focused programs with peer modeling for children with autism exist, DeMuth hasn’t heard of any such effort that pairs them with medical school “buddies.”

“We got them to think about dialogue, communicating and putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” she explains, noting medical students aided with the brainstorming, character development and story structure. “The students took the kids under their wing from the start. Everyone was laughing and having a great time.”

A comic book style illustration of a set of superhero fists raised in the air.
Ben's character needs to save the Avengers from the evil Lizzo the Lizard.

Nine first- and second-year medical students and 10 kids ages 11 to 19 participated, developing plays with colorful titles like “The Adventures of Night Bolt,” “Go Mario, Go” and “Owl Noir and the Jail Birds.” Some brought their own masks and capes as extra props for the event in Eakins Lounge.

“I was immediately drawn to Michele’s project because it leveraged interest in superpowers to teach social skills to a group affected by autism,” says Dr. Wendy Ross, director of the Jefferson Center for Autism and Neurodiversity and clinical associate professor in the clinician educator track. “Involving the medical students helped increase their ability to empathize with a neurodiverse population while learning strategies to communicate with those for whom communication can be a challenge. All this happened while everyone had fun! Superhero stories are about exceeding expectations to overcome obstacles, and Michele creatively embedded this lesson into her program.”

Group shot at the playwriting workshop
Fourth-year medical student Michele DeMuth (right) created the playwriting workshop.

Megan Voeller, Jefferson’s director of humanities, also commended DeMuth—who plans to enter pediatrics—for combining what she learned about playwriting and theater with her experiential and medical knowledge of autism.

“You can see in Michele’s work that she’s deeply committed to understanding the experience of teens with autism spectrum disorder as whole people—their joys, their accomplishments—not just as patients with a diagnosis or deficit,” Voeller says. “The leadership she’s showing by engaging other medical students in the process is a real gift back to the Jefferson community. It’s a wonderful example of striving for the mission of ‘we improve lives.’”

Comics background. Cartoon poster in pop art style with yellow-red speech bubbles with halftone and sound effects.
Josh plans to perform “Loud Ears” in his high school theater class.

Adina Hatch’s 19-year-old son, Josh, participated in the program because he enjoys theater and acting but never wrote a play before, she says. Josh enjoyed the experience so much he plans to perform “Loud Ears” in his theater class at Springfield Township High School. (Read it here.)

Fellow parent Dr. Sondra Dantzic praised the workshop’s content and design because it provided a unique opportunity for her 18-year-old son, Benjamin, to collaborate with a neurotypical peer mentor—“a step that’s so vital to his development,” she says. He wrote “Metal-Breaker: The New Avenger” with student Kyle Rodgers. (Read it here.)

“Benjamin loves superhero characters and films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of them,” she says. “It’s clear to us that he has learned a lot about emotions, relationships and problem solving by inhabiting the stories and adventures of this genre. Having the opportunity to work one-on-one with a medical student to create and then perform a play filled with superheroes and peers of his own imagination was a delightful way for him to spend a day, get to express himself and have fun with other young adults.”

Kids acting out a play
The tweens and teens took turns acting out their superhero plays in front of the group.
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