top of page

Notes on talk on working with Actors with Cognitive Disabilities:




The difference between disability and neurodiversity:



  • Most neurodiversities and cognitive disabilities sit in the same bubble. If you have a neurodiversity it is likely that you are classed as disabled.


  • Glasses are widely used as an example for the definition of disability:


If I am struggling to see and have access to appropriate glasses, my everyday life will not be heavily impacted by my impairment and I would not be classed as disabled.  If I am struggling to see and do not have access to glasses, my every day life would be impacted and I would be classed as disabled.


  • A neurodiversity might not be classed as a disability if it does not impact the individual’s ability to undertake everyday tasks.


  • Our understanding of both neurodiversity and cognitive disability does change and these theories will likely change.


  • Neurodiversity is often viewed as a developmental entity - we develop it in the brain as we grow-up.


It is worth noting that research into dyslexia suggests a relationship with trauma. - That some specialists believe it might be a developmental response to trauma.


  • A cognitive disability might be developmental or created by something happening to someone, ie a stroke, traumatic events, or an impact to the head etc.


  • It is often argued that people have biological biases towards certain disabilities and that stressful external factors might generate or enhance the likelihood of someone developing this disability  Ie. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder etc.


  • You can also argue that stressful external factors would likely impact someone’s ability to mask a disability/neurodiversity which would lead to a greater chance of medical diagnosis.  Ie. A person experiencing more difficult/stressful life events may struggle to hide a cognitive disability and therefore be more likely to be diagnosed.




My working practices:


  • When I work I tend to introduce my disability at the start.


  • I sometimes talk about disability hangover - ie. the impact of having a disability that changes over time, and what this does to my working process: ‘the hangover’.


  • I’m not wedded to a lot of these theories, they function more as tools - individual experience tends to be more important.


  • I tend to find that theories on cognition take a period of time for us to process, more so than other theoretical lenses like class or disability studies or feminism.



Info on practitioners:


  • I think it’s beneficial to view acting theory and books written by acting practitioners more as guidelines than ‘law’.  This is because it’s very difficult to analyse the way in which we work in performance using a written format.


Books on acting are often written for a variety of reasons.


Jeanne Leep analyses the ‘recipe’ approach to improv theory that I apply to all acting theory because of the difficulty in analysing non-conscious or subconscious parts of the brain/body.  Ie. there’s a pattern of writing acting books like recipe books leaving readers to fill in the gaps.


External factors impact the way in which acting processes are documented.  (E.g. politics, money, editors/writers, period of time the work is written, who the work was for.)


Practitioners who work with key figures have often cited a belief that their work is different from their book.  Ie. it is likely a practitioner will change their mind over time, or might not be able to convey the full extent of their approach in written formats.


  • I work using a belief that acting relates directly to the way in which we process information. This was generated by Dr Jessica Hartley.


  • I believe that it is impossible for a performer to work outside of their own cognitive processing ability ie. the way in which they process information.


  • That there are trends relating to how performers process information, such as dyslexic performance styles etc.


  • I would argue that there’s a wide-spread assumption that acting is becoming something other than ourselves, which I’m not sure is possible. And that appropriation of cognitive disabilities in performance is often supported by this belief.


When I was studying narcissism, I was often struck by how many accounts on narcissism stop analysing patients when they were ‘acting’, and was interested that this belief seemed to impact the field of psychology/psychiatry.






Info on my specialisms:


  • I’m a specialist in improvisation who works with a focus on type 1  and type 2 forms of cognitive processing.


  • I argue the lack of an auto-biographical narrative found in type 1 forms of cognitive processing impacts the role of the director/teacher/ensemble.


  • Autobiographical narrative is our ability to narrate our memory.  This can be found in type 2 forms of cognitive processing (like solving a maths equation).  This can not be found in type 1 forms of cognitive processing (like improvising a monologue for 1 minute).  You might notice this if you try doing both.


  • I call the memory that we have from type 1 forms of cognitive processing ‘colour’ because I could often remember the colour of the lights when I was performing.


  • In my own research I found that the relationship between type 1 and type 2 forms of cognitive processing had a large impact on performers with intersectional identities.


  • I found that performers with intersectional identities had autobiographical memories of instances of aggressions/micro-aggressions when they were performing.  This suggested that when responding to aggressions on stage, performers tend to sit in type 2 forms of cognitive processing.  Ie. away from more intuitive forms of cognitive processing.


  • I believe this also relates to lenses that performers sit in.  ie. Black Acting Methods - Sharrell D Luckett PhD and Tia M Shaffer Ed.D, Acting (Re)Considered - Lauren Love.


  • Lenses indicate that performers with greater intersectional identities often have to reduce their ability to enter into type 1 forms of cognitive processing in development/training. For instance, if a comedian is performing on stage, they are dependent on audience recognition of their intuitive dialogue and may likely have to alter intuitive dialogue.


  • Working to support intuitive type 1 forms of cognitive processing of the performer is therefore important for the work of the director or teacher.  - They provide feedback on autobiographical memory, but can also impact our ability to enter into intuitive states if we wish to.


  • This is inclusive of those with neurodiversities/cognitive disabilities.



Exercises on working with cognitive disabilities:



Good good, good/bad, bad bad: Using these titles, create lists of exercises that you 1. Thought were brilliant, that fit you well.  2. Thought did something to you but weren’t great.  3. Were never going to work for you no matter how many times or varieties you tried them in. Then look at the patterns in the list.  List 2 is probably the most important one in terms of looking at your development.


Atmospheres: We can take Chekhov’s Atmosphere’s and play with learning inputs to find out preferences of the performers that we are working with.  By changing the inputs I ask performers to notice what areas of the exercise they found the most useful and analyse their preferences in relation to some learning styles.


Exercise: Ask participants to stand at the side of all the walls of the rehearsal room. This is a safe space for them to return to if needed.  By walking in front of the participants create an outline of a ‘bubble’ in the room for them to step into.


Fill the ‘bubble’ with pink, breathable gas and allow them to enter.

Change/add sparkles to the gas and the taste of raspberry/strawberry.

Change the gas and sparkles to rainbow.

Change the gas to snow (ie. “The gas slowly disappears, and from the top of the ceiling light snow starts to drop and land on the floor”.)

Change the snow to lightning that can be held in the hands.

Walking through a wind tunnel.

Walking through a town square on a hot day in [insert name of country]

Listening to music in the square [with music playing in the room]

Give the performer an aim, like you are a spy… Etc.


‘ Essential Acting’  - Brigid Panet has a lot of very good neurodiverse acting practices and is something I often go back to when I get stuck.

**Please contact for table on acting learning types**


  • Preference for Structure:

ADHD (to go away and “forget about” - quote from a student)



  • Preference for No Structure:



  • Preference for Semi-Structured:





  • Learning Styles that I personally focus on:









Spatial - utilising of the room.






Lists / Logic  (Can come out in different ways)







Overall patterns within cognitive disability and performance:



  • There seems to be patterns in approaches to performance by those with cognitive disabilities, for instance a number of performers with downs syndrome and dyspraxia often present heightened engagements with play, and presence on stage. Many patterns relating to particular disabilities exist.



  • Two potential new neurodiversities which are currently classed under a different disability:


First: Problems in ability to analyse the emotional response system of others, characterised by a strong ability to perceive patterns in emotional response, but not to apply personal mirroring to those patterns.  Increased engagement with narrative, and often, but not always, with narrative that centres slightly more extreme actions.  With stage fright likely to struggle less with visual presence of audience, but more with concept of the audience, the work etc. Likely to struggle with a number of ensemble orientated work that assumes a feeling connection within the working process.


Second:  Detailed understanding of characterisation process, often orientating around feelings, pressures, analysis of performance.  Likely to be strong within some aspects of the ensemble process and to be particularly adept to responding to social cues, may find trouble at points with too much information input of social cues and may struggle with assumptions around more normative communication problems.


These neurodiversities would currently be classed as personality disorders.



  • Presenting Disabilities:


This is the name that I give to people who are un-diagnosed but are presenting some of the diagnostic criteria for a cognitive disability.  Diagnosis is complicated and heavily related to intersectional identity.  Ie. how complex a disability is versus wealth versus proximity to whiteness are factors that are known to heavily impact diagnosis.  - It is common for Drs to disagree on diagnosis also.


If someone is presenting a disability, I can implement access support by altering my directing, teaching or even interviewing style.


There are sometimes limits to our ability to implement access support due to legal requirements for evidence.  The most common issue would be mitigating circumstances needed in an educational setting where evidence is required in order to make examination adjustments.


Many teachers will be able to support through other access measures if one disability or access requirement has been officially acknowledged.  Ie. they would be able to support a number of access measures if there is proof or prior discussion of just one disability/support need.




  • Engaging communication styles:


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi analyses class in relation to Flow Theory. I connect Flow Theory to type 1 forms of cognitive processing.  Csikszentmihalyi believes that different classes engage with intuitive cognitive processing differently.  He outlines a belief that working class/people from low socio economic backgrounds are often better at engaging in flow theory than middle class/wealthy people.  That this sometimes changes with people with extreme wealth who exhibit patterns more closely related to people without wealth.  Csikszentmihalyi relates this back to lifestyle factors like housing, spending habits and presentation factors of middle classes.


I think this can have an interesting impact on disability and frustrations around being able to engage in flow/type 1 forms of cognitive processing with disabled performers from different backgrounds.



  • Engaging emotional dysregulation:


One of the biggest issues of discrimination that I see in the teaching world seems to be towards people who experience emotional dysregulation as a part of their disability.


I believe this is due to what factors teachers are able to discuss with others - ie. emotional dysregulation could relate to a number of diagnoses, and student behaviours.  It is therefore less of an identifying factor of a student and I believe more teachers feel comfortable speaking about the impact of this factor more so than a factor that would lead to more obvious identification or diagnosis.


Emotional dysregulation is sometimes used as a belief that someone will not ‘make it’ in the industry.  I have seen one instance where difficulties with emotion dysregulation caused a student to leave, where I felt with a better understanding of this, more could have been done to render the space more safe to everyone.


I personally work with emotional dysregulation like a neurodiversity.  Ie. the experiences of emotions are a valid perspective of a brain that is working in a different way to more normative brains. I do not need to share this experience for it to be valid.   I would also argue that emotional dysregulation is often used to reduce a clear logic in disabled performers.  Emotional dysregulation can change drastically, so I find it difficult to believe that it could ever stop someone working or entering the performing arts industry.


  • Audio/visual inputs.


Awareness of noise regulation, light regulation, texture regulation can heavily impact performance spaces, and are factors that can often easily be changed or altered.  In addition to this, a wider awareness that hearing or seeing things /tics or chronic pain may alter the orientation of concentration within work.  Again it’s worth remembering that people with cognitive disabilities often work in slightly different ways and are often expert in how to work with their brains. Not getting in the way of that is therefore important.


  • Movement and Appropriation.


Online discussions around appropriation and disability often acknowledge problems in the way in which disabilities are detailed within appropriation, and I would highlight that many cognitive disabilities impact a persons’ movement in very specific ways, which is often missed out within these representations.  For example, I think there’s a style of movement that I connect to Borderline Personality Disorder, as well as a different style of movement that I connect to aspects Addiction.


  • Working with trauma in Improvisation


When working within improvisation  with subjects that might be traumatic, I use a number of assumptions as a basic rule to support the performer:


1. That someone will have experienced or have a relationship to this trauma who is in the room.   

2. That we take a couple of weeks to process and assess our relationship to enacting this trauma.


I work by asking myself not whether a performer is comfortable going through the improvisation now, but whether this will impact them over the next few week/months.


This last part is based around a belief that humans are cognitively designed to go through difficult situations and then process and re-assess them afterwards.  It is therefore relatively common for performers to feel fine improvising or working on a text within the moment, but for this process to have a later impact on them.


Whilst it is difficult to prove, I strongly believe that acting processes tend to get worse after performers experience trauma in the rehearsal room.  That the body’s defences often kick in to save the performer.  I generated this belief out of performer’s talking about ‘not being able, for some reason to achieve the performance’ a couple of weeks after they experienced trauma in the rehearsal room.


I also use this second rule to work with physical pain in the rehearsal room ie. will this work impact your chronic pain over the next few weeks, and not just in this moment.  Many people will likely know that the connection between cognition and chronic pain is quite large.


  • The use of sign-posting over trigger warnings.


Sign-posting follows a process of talking down towards the trauma point.  An example might be:  “Today we are covering a play about relationships.  In those relationships people can often get angry, they might become violent, they might hit someone or say something upsetting.”  You can even go as far as: “They might become abusive.”  The reason I prefer sign-posting to trigger warnings is that they give time to trauma responses to understand the situation, they don’t separate the trauma from the rest of the material ie. the play, trigger warnings can sometimes exceptionalise trauma ie. ‘here is a topic that we don’t like to talk about’.  I would argue that sign-posting works more appropriately with the way in which trauma impacts the brain, ie. trauma is often abstract, and triggering often responds to abstract stimuli, and talking around the material reduces the amount of abstract surprises.  In some instances performers might prefer trigger warnings as they are a learnt point of safety and control.  Ie the performer might feel safer in spaces that utilise trigger warnings as a sign of a ‘safe space’.


  • Issues relating to the good/bad disabled person.


A lot of cognitive disabilities, like many disabilities, can be impacted when people apply moral scales to them.  I often use acute addiction as an example of this.  For instance, people might discuss morals surrounding drug or alcohol addiction within a play.  Within acute addiction however the way in which we process information likely changes, ie. addiction seems to alter our ability to perceive things.  Applying a good or bad moral scale to a cognitive change is arguably not overly helpful, as it tends to centre the disability on a scale of acceptability which favours a neurotypical brain.  I would also highlight that applying a good or bad scale towards those with cognitive disabilities can place people in danger due to the relationship to whether someone is ‘deserving’ of medical support.  Discussing a play in which you assume someone with a personality disorder or with addiction is bad is therefore probably not a great idea.  In my experience some companies that follow social models of disability miss out disabilities that are more heavily morally discriminated against so is an area worth keeping an eye on.


  • Safety points/some examples of questions to ask:


Do people need to travel during rush hour? Are photographs safe? First drink is a non-alcoholic drink - can we go somewhere where non-alcohol alternatives are still interesting.  Food is difficult on stage.  Can the venue or team support the use of hot water bottles if there is a kettle.  Do we need this uniform, can this costume be changed to support sensory issues or chronic pain.

bottom of page