Students With Autism Find Their Voice On Stage

BurkTech Players combine graduates of Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research with students from Texas Tech's School of Theatre & Dance.


While many experts believe people with autism respond well to creating art, performing art usually is not included. People with autism are seen as shy or uncomfortable with attention or unable to show the emotion necessary to act in a play.

A theatre company at Texas Tech University disproves those beliefs. The BurkTech Players, composed of graduates from the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research and students from the School of Theatre & Dance, was created in 2014 after a community theatre class brought the groups together. At its helm are Clay Martin, a graduate student in fine arts who wanted to work with students with autism, and Sam Shreffler, a Burkhart graduate who performed a freeform routine on a national stage when he auditioned for “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The program has highlighted the diversity of talent and interests among students with autism and the many ways students from all backgrounds can collaborate on projects. The collaboration now extends to classes for elementary, middle and high school children with autism with excellent results; children are talking more and displaying more emotions. One high schooler even dropped out of the Burkhart theatre classes to join the theatre club at his high school.

The company does a show every semester and is working on a long-term project to give a greater voice to people with autism.

Read more about the company and play. Photos are available upon request.


Clay Martin, graduate student, School of Theatre & Dance,

  • When he saw how well Shreffler took to the stage, Martin was confident other students had the same type of talent and interest and could find a core group of actors.
  • The shows are not good considering they have actors with autism. They are just plain good.
  • “I don’t think it’s something you come to see how this student’s been helped. It’s to see the absolute professionalism and quality of their performance. It’s entertaining.”

Wes Dotson, co-director, Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research, (806) 834-0783 or

  • “It goes back to Sam and seeing what that performance did for him, seeing that our students have amazing ideas and just as much of a desire to connect and be part of the community as anyone else, and they often struggle. This gives them a way to do that.”
  • “What I see, as someone who works on social skills for a living, is they will try things in theatre class that are really hard to get them to do otherwise.”

Mark Charney, director, School of Theatre & Dance, (806) 834-1683 or

  • The theatre classes started simply with the goal of making students more comfortable and braver in social situations. That succeeded beyond expectations.
  • After the first semester of the community theatre class with the Burkhart, a number of students approached Charney and Dotson and asked for permission to continue. They said yes. More students get involved each semester.
  • “Now we’re working on the possibility for us to create a partial degree for pedagogy for unconventional audiences.”

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The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research

The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research

The Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research is a comprehensive, life span center with a three-fold mission:

  • Providing services and support to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families across West Texas and the surrounding area
  • Offering cutting-edge training to teachers, families and other professionals to provide effective and evidence-based services and support to individuals with ASD
  • Conducting significant, sponsored interdisciplinary research to better understand and overcome the lifelong causes and effects of ASD in ways that improve functionality and quality of life for people with ASD and their families 

The Burkhart Center is part of the Texas Tech University College of Education.

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School of Theatre & Dance

Department of Theatre and Dance

Texas Tech's School of Theatre and Dance is part of the College of Visual & Performing Arts. It is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre.

The university is one of two in Texas to offer all traditional degrees in theatre, and one of only three in the southwest to offer a Ph.D. in Fine Arts.

Students in the School of Theatre and Dance pursue a core curriculum that includes training in the areas of design, acting, directing, dance, stage management, history and playwriting.