A theater teacher since 1980, Stephanie Wilson of Westlake Village has met children with autism who come alive on stage.

“When I heard about ‘Autism: The Musical,’ I knew that there were great teachers out there creating programs specifically for young people on the spectrum, so I began to do the research so we could design a program,” she said.

With that, the Acting Academy for Autism was born. A project of the nonprofit Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory, the academy’s first session will run from Jan. 30 through April 23, with classes from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays in Thousand Oaks.

“In addition to teaching, I raised a daughter who has Asperger’s syndrome,” Wilson said of Elizabeth Angelini of Sherman Oaks. “Back in the early ’90s, there was very little written on the subject.”

Angelini, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was 12, has been involved in the education profession for eight years as a teaching assistant, substitute teacher and full-time educator for students with special needs, including autism and emotional disturbances. She has given presentations on her experiences with autism to colleagues and professionals in the teaching credential program at CSU Northridge.

“Based on my background and knowledge of autism, my stepmother asked me to offer advice regarding student enrollment, behaviors and curriculum,” said Angelini, 31. “She requested that I help supervise and teach classes so that the students and parents can have a source of expertise and inspiration.”

Theater provides a safe and controlled environment for students to explore and use their imaginations, said Billy Parish of Encino, one of the instructors and developers of the program. “Theater provides a freedom that few other places can. It also allows children that find that they are different to find a place where they are normal.”

Acting classes break down social-emotional skills into separate and smaller skills upon which youths can build, Wilson said. For instance, “If a person can learn to recognize and then portray real social-emotional cues, they can begin to understand what others are thinking and feeling. Then they can move on to what others mean or intend. … They can have real social exchanges that help them to work, make friends and have relationships.”

Most people associate people with Asperger’s syndrome as being significantly more high-functioning than those who have autism, Angelini said.

“People with autism have a reputation for being nonverbal and having to learn to communicate with gestures, movements, or even pictures,” she said.

People with Asperger’s, “while they also have trouble communicating and may also engage in self-stimulating behaviors, are generally verbal,” Angelini said. “They have trouble with more sophisticated social skills — conversation techniques, making eye contact, recognizing and responding to other people’s emotions in an appropriate manner, amongst others.”

People with Asperger’s usually develop obsessions about topics that interest them, Angelini added.

“Generally speaking, though, with social coaching and with some understanding from the general population, people with Asperger’s syndrome can develop healthy relationships, go to college, secure a job and live independently,” she said. “I am proof of that.”

Call 427-5314 or email goldcoasttheatre@gmail.com for more information on the Acting Academy for Autism. The 12-week course costs $350.

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