Vanderbilt University’s SENSE Theatre program has been investigating the utility of using theatre as an intervention for young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for several years. Their latest study adds to the growing body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of theatre as an ASD treatment. The findings indicate that acting programs with peer support can improve social ability in youth with ASD.
For the study, 30 children with ASD, aged 8 to 14, participated in a randomized controlled theatre-based program for 10 weeks. During the 40-hour program, the participants learned theatre techniques like role-playing and improvisation. The participants were also paired with peer actors from the University School of Nashville. The peer actors served as “expert models,” providing a supportive, engaging learning environment for the participants. The program culminated in a play in which the participants and the peer actors performed together.
The program participants demonstrated significant differences in social ability compared to the members of the control group. In particular, the treatment group exhibited improvements in social cognition, social interaction, and social communication. This is likely because acting uses many aspects of socializing like perception, observation, and expressing thoughts and feelings.
The treatment group notably improved in the ability to identify and remember faces, a finding corroborated by changes in brain patterns visible when the participants viewed familiar faces. The treatment group also engaged in more group play with children outside the program than the control group. Their improvements in social communication at home and in the community were maintained for at least two months.
“Peers can be transformative in their ability to reach and teach children a variety of fundamental social skills. 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,” stated study researcher Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor at Vanderbilt.
This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
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