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Using theater’s sensory experiences to help children with autism

Using theater's sensory experiences to help children with autism

Gesamkunstwerk, my favorite German word and a term commonly associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, can be translated as a “total work of art” playing to many of the senses and synthesizing numerous art forms. The word came to mind as I read about a pilot study using theater as an environment for children with autism-spectrum disorders  to explore “communication, social interaction, and imagination skills – the ‘triad of impairments’ seen in autism,” a New Scientist piece notes, “engaging all the children’s senses at once.”

Twenty-two children ages 7-12 attended one weekly 45-minute session for 10 weeks involving improvisation exercises led by trained performers in enclosed make-believe environments such as a forest or outer space.

From the piece:

As well as looking at whether behaviours used to diagnose autism changed after the drama sessions, the researchers also assessed emotion recognition, imitation, IQ and theory of mind – the ability to infer what others are thinking and feeling. Subjective ratings were also gathered from parents and teachers and follow-up assessments were conducted up to a year later.

At the early assessments, all children showed some improvement. The most significant change was in the number of facial expressions recognised, a key communication skill. Nine children improved on this. Six children improved on their level of social interaction. The majority of these changes were also seen at the follow-up assessments.

The project’s lead psychologist, David Wilkinson, PhD, at the University of Kent, told New Scientist, ”It’s an opportunity for children to create their own narratives in an unconstrained, unfamiliar environment.” He continued, “They find this empowering, and we know from the psychology literature that individuals who are empowered enjoy increased attention skills and an improved sense of well-being.”

Previously: Making museums more inviting for autistic children and their familiesStanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autismDirector of Stanford Autism Center responds to your questions on research and treatment and A mother’s story on what she learned from her autistic son

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