Pairing the recitation of Shakespeare’s rhythmic language with physical gesture may significantly improve social and communication skills in children with autism, a new study has found. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have trouble understanding nonverbal behaviour in social interactions and struggle to communicate. They avoid eye contact and miss visual cues, making it difficult to maintain peer relationships and mutual interests.
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“At the end of the study, which incorporated Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, children with autism showed significant improvement in their social skills and their ability to engage in social relationships,” said Marc J Tasse, professor at Ohio State University in the US.
Fourteen children with ASD were enrolled for the only systematic implementation of a drama based social skills intervention known as the “Hunter Heartbeat Method,” created by Kelly Hunter, from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.
The novel therapeutic approach was designed to improve social interaction, pragmatic language and facial-emotion recognition skills of individuals with ASD.
“These children are taught these core skills in a very relaxed and playful environment, where it is almost like they are not aware they are being taught,” said Tasse.
Each session begins with the children quietly seated in a circle on the floor making a “Hello Heartbeat” by tapping their hand on their chest. This allows them time to adapt to the environment and signifies transition into the session.
Facilitators then lead the children through a series of games based on the plot of The Tempest, which focus on skills such as facial emotion recognition, eye contact, turn taking, affective expression, humour, social improvisation and others.
Initially, two facilitators model the game in the centre of the circle, subsequently, facilitators and children break into twosomes for one to one repeated practice and retroactive feedback of the game.
Facilitators and children then return to the circle where they take turns “performing” for the other participants.
After a number of games, which ultimately reflect the plot progression of The Tempest, the “Hunter Heartbeat Method” intervention concludes with a “Goodbye Heartbeat.”
“You interact with someone, you enjoy yourself and you get that intrinsic reinforcement of socialising children with autism do not always get to experience that,” said Maggie Mehling, psychology graduate assistant at Ohio State.
Pre-test assessments were conducted to obtain baseline information for each child. The children participated in the intervention one hour per week after school for 10 weeks.
At the conclusion of the study, post-test assessments were completed, and parents and participants completed questionnaires regarding their impression of the intervention.
“It just blows me away every time I see how the kids are able to exceed all expectations with their ability to get engaged,” Mehling said.
The study appears in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.