A 40-hour, 10-week theatrical intervention program can improve social abilities of children with autism, finds a new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The program known as 'SENSE Theater' was developed by Blythe Corbett, an associate professor at the Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
The study showed that children with autism
who participated in the program showed considerable differences in social skills compared to a group of children with autism who did not participate.
is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by restricted and repetitive behavior, impaired social interaction, and fear of change in the environment. Signs of the disorder can combine in many ways and vary in severity. A child with autism responds best to highly structured and specialized therapy. The primary goal of the treatment should be improving the overall ability of the child to function. According to experts, a program that helps patients improve communication, behavioral, adaptive, and learning aspects will be most successful.
Acting is an interactive process that involves several aspects of communication, socializing. An actor must be good at observing, interpreting and expressing thoughts, feelings and ideas. Corbett, who is also a scientist at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, says that the study provides some conclusive evidence of the benefits of theater for improving social competence in children with autism spectrum disorder.
"We measured many aspects of social ability and found significant treatment effects on social cognition, social interaction and social communication in youth with autism," Corbett said.
The study involved as many as 30 kids with autism who were 8 to 14 years old. Of them, 17 children were randomized to an experimental group and 13 to the control group.
The group of children administrated to the new therapy showed significant changes in the ability to recognize and remember faces, which was scientifically explained by
differences in brain patterns
that emerge when study participants saw a familiar face.
Children participated in the theater program also showed improvement in activities with children outside the treatment setting, as well as in communication at home.
More than just using theater techniques, such as role-playing and improvisation, children in SENSE Theater are paired with typically growing peer actors from the University School of Nashville.
Corbett calls them 'expert models,' from the School. These models are trained to give a supportive and dynamic learning conditions for the kids with autism, allowing them to practice essential social skills.
The fascinating thing about the study is that the finale to the 40-hour therapy is the performance of a 45-minute play in which children with autism and peers share the stage in a unique association between art and science.
The positive changes like greater facial recognition skills and cognitive abilities in the participants persisted two months after the program.
"Peers can be transformative in their ability to reach and teach children a variety of fundamental social skills. Combined with acting techniques that enhance our ability and motivation to communicate with others, the data suggests we may be setting the stage for lasting changes in how our children with autism perceive and interact with the social world," Corbett said.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Earlier studies have showed that theatrically-based intervention may improve cognitive abilities and intelligence quotient in older adults. A study published in the Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition
, showed cognitive abilities of elders participated in the acting therapy significantly improved from the control group. The study involved as many as 122 older adults who took theater training twice a week for 4 weeks.
1. Blythe A. Corbett, Alexandra P. Key, Lydia Qualls, Stephanie Fecteau, Cassandra Newsom, Catherine Coke, Paul Yoder. Improvement in Social Competence Using a Randomized Trial of a Theatre Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2015; DOI: 10.1007/s10803-015-2600-9