MTYP is bringing back two courses especially for children with autism this fall. I Can Pretend! and I Can Pretend Too! were first developed at MTYP in 2009 and we couldn’t be more excited to have them in our theatre again. We sat down with Demetra Hajidiacos, the creator of the courses to ask her all about I Can Pretend! and I Can Pretend Too!.

Hello Demetra! What IS I Can Pretend! and I Can Pretend Too!? How do those classes differ from other theatre classes at MTYP?
I Can Pretend! is a creative drama program that I developed while I was doing my Master’s in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning) at the University of Manitoba. As a longtime Drama teacher and a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I had an idea to create a drama program specifically designed for children with autism.

In 2009, I pitched my idea to MTYP’s Artistic Director, Leslie Silverman, and School Director, Kent Suss. They agreed to let me pilot my program and host my subsequent thesis project that involved creating and teaching two classes that I named I Can Pretend! and I Can Pretend Too!.

My classes aimed to teach social skills and play skills to children with autism through teacher-led imaginative play. My lessons were based on research and over a decade of teaching drama in the school system while my thesis was informed by qualitative research (interviews, observations) that I gathered while teaching my classes at MTYP.

I call I Can Pretend! the thesis program that keeps on kicking!

After leaving MTYP to teach I Can Pretend! closer to my home, the program went on to be taught at my local community centre, a number of Winnipeg schools, theatre schools in Ontario and Alberta and my current business Autism Learning Centre.

I am thrilled to see I Can Pretend! return back home to MTYP! It was a delight training the entire MTYP staff. I know they will bring meaning and joy to children enrolled in the program through their dedication, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Who would most benefit from an I Can Pretend! class?
Whether your child has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), another developmental disorder (Global Developmental Disorder, OCD. ODD, ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome), or you just feel your child would benefit from a more specialized teaching approach, everyone is welcome!

How did you come up with the name I Can Pretend!?
During my graduate studies, I studied how to teach children on the autism spectrum. Through my research, it became apparent to me, as an educator and a parent of a child on the spectrum, that children with autism struggle with imitation skills.

I believe this deficit creates a domino effect that leads to deficits in perspective taking (understanding where others are coming from), focus and concentration, and play skills that lead to making and keeping friends.

When I started to teach my own son how to pretend through imaginative play he started to learn other skills more easily as a result. Teaching pretend play helps children with autism feel accepted and included. This leads to friendships, social skills, school readiness skills, and most importantly, feelings of self-worth.

I Can Pretend! was first piloted at MTYP as part of a graduate study in 2009. What does it mean to you to be returning to MTYP all these years later?
I am so thrilled for all the students who will get to experience the joy of taking classes at MTYP and for the families who will have this wonderful opportunity to see their children grow and flourish, make new friends, and create life-long memories!

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What would you say to a parent who’s on the fence about registering their child for your course?
I have had the pleasure of following some of the student who first started in the program in 2009. They are now adults who are funny and cool and love to be entertained and entertain others. I would say do not hesitate to register your child. There are no downsides to learning how to play and make friends!

From start to finish, what does a typical I Can Pretend! class look like?
Each class is 45 minutes in length and follows a tried-and-true curriculum that includes circle time, teacher led imaginative play, art and crafts, games and story time. My favourite part of teaching this program is at the end of class when everyone shares their favourite part of class either verbally or by pointing or by showing their friends a picture.

From start to finish, the program is about being a part of a community, and creating something imaginative together. We might be on a magic bus ride, a deep dive in the ocean, or jumping out of airplanes with parachutes, the important thing is that we are together and we are enjoying the drama as a collective, embracing the idea that it is more fun to play with friends than to play alone.

Do you have any memorable stories from teaching the class over the years? A story that always makes you smile?
I have too many stories! I can see the ear-to-ear smiles in my students and their families in all my memories. But if I had to pick, the hair salon was fairly hilarious. On the last class of a session on occupations the parents got new hairdos. They were epic!

What are some comments you’ve heard from students or parents/guardians over the years about your course?
I still hear parents tell me or other parents in online chats that their children first learned how to play and make friends in my program. That gives me goosebumps every time. As a parent of a child with autism I can tell you there is no greater joy than seeing my child play with other children for the first time.

Over the years my staff and I have taught hundreds of children in Manitoba how to play imaginatively with others. It never gets old.

MTYP is still accepting registrations for I Can Pretend! (for ages 5-8) and I Can Pretend Too! (for ages 9-13). Both courses are 45-minutes long, begin Saturday, October 14 and run for eight weeks.