James was 17 years old when joining Cashback to the Future, Edinburgh 2019. James had finished school with no ambitions for further education or employment. After receiving a diagnosis of Autism James was unwilling to accept this and resented any additional support he was given at school. This tension lead him to move from his mainstream school and finish his education at a much smaller private school with his place funded by the council. Despite this James felt he left with no friends and under prepared for the future. He joined our project at the National Museum of Scotland as he had enjoyed drama at the Lyceum in the past and his mum worked at the museum so was aware of the work Impact Arts has done in previous years. James joined the performance group of Cashback due to his love of drama and wish to gain confidence.

James has struggled with anxiety, often manifesting in physical symptoms and withdrawal. James joined us on the first day accompanied by his support worker and was overwhelmed by seeing other people in friendship groups, he was certain he wouldn’t make any friends and wouldn’t enjoy his time on the project. During the taster sessions James was very vocal in assuming that no one would like him even when others were trying their best to connect with him, this lead to an uncomfortable air that only further cemented his worry.

It took a lot of coaxing to get James to participate in games or to share his creative ideas. James had little to no self-confidence at the start of the project. He found comfort in playing characters during improvisation exercises, often becoming the confident person he would rather be, but when it came to being himself during dance, discussions, or break times he would frequently retreat to the toilet where he often complained of being sick.

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James was with us for the first day of the project but then went on holiday until week 3. Despite this James had perhaps the highest attendance of anyone else in the performance group. He was always the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. James was very committed to the group and worried that the other’s lateness or non attendance was his fault rather than their own personal issues or other commitments.

His great attendance gave us a substantial amount of time to coach James through these worries and this allowed his confidence to increase with every day. As a group we decided that our contribution towards the end of project showcase at the Barrowlands would be spoken word poetry and a movement piece, both looking at the politics of clothing and decisions in how we present ourselves. Despite needing a lot of encouragement to perform his poem and to join in with the movement piece in the early days, James pushed himself to exceed in both of the pieces. James spoken word performance was the highlight of the show for many people. He received so much praise the next day that he was forced to accept that he did extremely well.

James did not believe in his ability to contribute to our performances. In overcoming his stage fright he challenged many negative preconceptions of himself. Every time we saw James stepping out of his comfort zone during rehearsals and exercises we also saw his confidence increase in other areas. James developed in his sense of humour which helped him to deal with many situations which in the beginning were his trigger to withdraw or get frustrated.

By validation James’ creative ideas, following his lead in improvisation games and including his work in our final showcase, we saw decision making skills improve and needed much less encouragement to contribute his opinion or perform for others. By providing James with such a professional stage to perform his spoken word poem including a live band, costume, tech support and lighting it gave James a sense that his performance and personal poem was worthy of so many other’s expertise and attention. Through engaging with Cashback James was able to mingle with people he would never normally and significantly increased his social skills, making many meaningful relationships.