Children with autism who participated in a 10-week theater program experienced a significant increase in social skills compared to those who did not participate, according to a new study by Vanderbilt University. Children in the program showed improvements in social cognition, interaction, and communication.
Acting is like therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder, said lead researcher Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and researcher at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Acting is an interactive process that incorporates a variety of social skills, including observing, perceiving, interpreting and expressing thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
For the study, the children participated in a 10 week, 40 hour program called SENSE Theatre. The Social Emotional Neuroscience & Endocrinology (SENSE) program evaluates the social functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.
The findings from Corbett’s new randomized control trial provide some convincing evidence of the benefits of theater for improving the social skills of children with autism.
“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 research involved 30 children ages eight to 14, with 17 randomly chosen for the experimental group and 13 in the control group. The treatment group exhibited notable improvements in the ability to identify and remember faces, which was confirmed by changes in brain patterns that arise when study participants saw a familiar face.
Children who participated in the theater program also showed more group play with children outside the treatment setting, as well as improvement in social communication at home and in the community. This improvement was evident for at least two months.
In addition to using theater techniques, such as role-playing and improvisation, the children enrolled in SENSE Theatre were paired with typically developing peer actors from the University School of Nashville.
These “expert models,” as Corbett calls them, are trained to provide a supportive, engaging, and dynamic learning environment for the children with autism, allowing them to practice and perform important social skills. In fact, the finale to the 40-hour program was the performance of a play in which participants and peers shared the stage in a unique collaboration between art and science.
“Peers can be transformative in their ability to reach and teach children a variety of fundamental social skills,” Corbett said. “And, 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.”
The research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.