From the time she was young, Emily Buenafuente loved telling jokes. Humor came naturally for her, and she was always thrilled to have an audience to laugh along at the
But as she grew up, Emily’s disabilities caused her to get picked on in school. The 16 year old has autism and making friends became difficult. “She has a lot of trouble socializing with peers. Adults, she gets,” said Lisa Delgado, Emily’s mother. “She was having a very hard time in school.”
Emily retreated into her shell. But then Delgado moved her family from New Jersey to Naples a few years ago. For the first year, Delgado home schooled her daughter so she didn’t have to start a new school in the middle of the year.
Soon after, she learned about an improv program at The Naples Players for students with autism. Emily wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into her first Friday evening session with Craig Price, the theater’s Director of Community Education and Wellness. But Craig, who has worked with students with sensory-processing disorders and Asperger’s, knew exactly how to put Emily and others at ease.
“Craig is just so awesome with these kids and it’s wonderful that he’s doing this not just for any teenagers but also for teenagers with issues,” Delgado said. Soon, Emily was getting the hang of games like Gibberish, where kids jump out from a back row and tell a joke based on suggestions from audience members.
Improv is a perfect exercise for students with autism because there’s no wrong answers, and playing off of other actors in a scene helps kids to read social cues and emotions. Being silly is encouraged, and interacting with other students with autism puts everyone on even footing.
For two years, Emily attended weekly sessions with the group thanks to a scholarship from TNP. Without that scholarship, Delgado said that as a home care nurse, she couldn’t afford to send her daughter to the program. “This program has helped so much,” Delgado said. “And she has made friends now. They’re all very close and she talks to them all the time.”
Price said Emily has grown over the past two years and was eventually ready to move up to the Teen Improv group. That group meets on Monday nights and now Emily is doing improv alongside other kids her age with and without disabilities. And to bring it all full circle, Emily now volunteers with students in her old Friday evening improv group.
“It’s a lot like regular improv, but I’m engaging more now with the other students,” Emily said. Her mother, also pitches in as a volunteer for the wellness and theatre therapy programming. Price said Emily’s growth has been remarkable. “Emily has
grown so much in that time,” Price said. “It’s been great to watch her move on to the next class while still coming back to volunteer.” Emily said she’s noticed how transformational the experience has been for herself.
“I get to express myself without being judged,” Emily said. “And according to my mom, it actually took me out of my shell. I’m more confident in myself now and I want to express myself more than I used to.” Emily’s teachers, including Price, noticed her knack for
comedic timing and have suggested she start doing stand-up comedy some day in
the future. “I’m constantly thinking of it now,” Emily said.