June 24, 2011

Children with autism take center stage at SENSE Theatre

Vanderbilt researcher uses theater as therapy for children with autism.

Children dancing (Joe Howell)
Children performing
(Joe Howell)

For children with autism spectrum disorders, social interaction can be difficult. Researchers from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center are using theatre to study – and potentially improve – the social and emotional functioning of children with autism.

The Kennedy Center hosted twelve children with autism for SENSE Theatre, a theatrical intervention program created by Blythe Corbett, assistant professor of psychiatry. The two-week camp was held in collaboration with the University School of Nashville Theatre Guild.

Camp participants joined with typically developing children from USN who served as models for social interaction. Additionally, the children with autism used video modeling at home to learn their lines and routines and practice social skills and emotional expression.

Child waving flagThe camp concluded with two public performances of “Bridges,” an original lyrical play written by Corbett and directed by Catherine Coke, USN Theatre Director.

“SENSE Theatre allows us to bridge science and art in a unique intervention program for children with autism,” Corbett said.

Corbett hopes to demonstrate measurable changes in social and communication skills and monitored stress levels of the children before, during and after the camp by measuring cortisol levels.

Corbett and Coke plan to offer more intervention productions through the SENSE Theatre, Kennedy Center and USN collaboration.