How Shakespeare may help children with autism improve their social skills

Could Shakespeare help children with autism improve their social skills? A new study of a drama-based intervention suggests that this may well be the case.

Researchers from Ohio State University found that a novel method using Shakespeare's The Tempest – which combines recitation of The Bard's language with physical gestures – lead to improvements in communication skills and recognition of facial expressions, in young people with autism.

The results appear in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

A study finds that children with autism developed better communication and language skills after ten weeks of Shakespeare acting classes.<br />

A study finds that children with autism developed better communication and language skills after ten weeks of Shakespeare acting classes. Photo: Ohio State University

"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 Dr. Marc J. Tassé, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University, in a statement.

Fourteen children with autism spectrum disorder were recruited for the novel drama-based social skills intervention called the "Hunter Heartbeat Method." Created by Kelly Hunter, an actress from the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, the method is designed to help improve the social skills, language skills and facial-emotion recognition skills of children with autism.

Participants ranged in age from 10 – 13 years and had a confirmed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Both highly verbal children and those with more limited verbal abilities were able to participate in the group.

As part of the Hunter Heartbeat Method, the children begin sessions seated in a circle where they perform a "Hello Heart beat" by tapping their hand to their chest. According to the study's authors this provides kids with time to adapt to their environment and transition into the session.

Group leaders then facilitate a series of games. The researchers write, "Games based on Shakespeare's play The Tempest are introduced to the children allowing them to progress through the basic plot of The Tempest while emphasising the themes of the eyes, the mind, and the heart." 

The games focus on skills such as eye contact, gross motor imitation, personal space, turn taking, humour and social improvisation.

Children have the opportunity to practice the games in smaller groups before returning to perform in front of their peers. The authors note that, though a low facilitator to child ratio, participants receive individual attention, feedback and  interaction.

And, rather than learning one role or perfecting a single character, as in traditional drama classes, children are able to try on a number of different social roles and emotions.

"You interact with someone, you enjoy yourself, and you get that intrinsic reinforcement of socialising children with autism don't always get to experience that," said co-author Maggie Mehling.

Children were assessed both prior to and after participating in the intervention, which ran for one hour a week for ten weeks. Parents also responded to a survey at the study's conclusion.

Wrote one parent, "[At first] I thought, it's another research project, but when I finally saw it in practice, I thought Wow! They've really got something there … I see great potential for this type of program as far as learning emotions, expressions, thinking outside of one's self, imagination, and following direction. Watching my daughter follow the actor's lead in "pretending" was remarkable."

Heather Davis, whose son Chase participated in the group was also initially sceptical. Her son, however, loved it. "It was like watching a completely different child for those few moments" she told Ohio State University. "He absolutely found pure joy in it."

While the results need to be replicated with a larger group of children, based on their findings, the authors conclude that the Hunter Heartbeat Method, "shows promise in improving the functioning of children with autism spectrum disorder."