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Theatre offers promise for youth with autism, Vanderbilt study finds

Oct. 22, 2013, 10:21 AM

Vanderbilt University/Steve Green

A novel autism intervention program using theatre to teach reciprocal communication skills is improving social deficits in adolescents with the disorder that now affects an estimated one in 88 children, Vanderbilt University researchers released today in the journal Autism Research.

The newly released study assessed the effectiveness of a two-week theatre camp on children with autism spectrum disorder and found significant improvements were made in social perception, social cognition and home living skills by the end of the camp. There were also positive changes in the participants’ physiological stress and reductions in self-reported parental stress.

Called SENSE Theatre, the Social Emotional Neuroscience & Endocrinology (SENSE) program evaluates the social functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders.

Camp participants ages 8 to 17 years join with typically developing peers who are specially trained to serve as models for social interaction and communication, skills that are difficult for children with autism. The camp uses techniques such as role-play and improvisation and culminates in public performances of a play.

“The findings show that treatment can be delivered in an unconventional setting, and children with autism can learn from unconventional ‘interventionists’ – their typically developing peer,” said lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry.

Vanderbilt University/Steve Green

Social perception and interaction skills were measured before and after the camp using neuropsychological measures, play with peers and parental reporting. Significant differences were found in face processing, social awareness and social cognition, and duration of interaction with familiar peers increased significantly over the course of the camp.

Additionally, the stress hormone cortisol was measured through saliva samples taken both at home and throughout the camp to compare the stress level of participants at home, at the beginning of the camp and at the end of the camp. Cortisol levels rose on the first day of camp when compared to home values but declined by the end of treatment and during post-treatment play with peers.

“Our findings show that the SENSE Theatre program contributes to improvement in core social deficits when engaging with peers both on and off the stage,” Corbett said. “This research also shows it’s never too late to make a significant difference in the lives of children and youth with autism spectrum disorder, as [this program] targets children who are much older than kids who are participating in early intervention, yet we are still seeing significant gains in the core deficits of autism, and in a rather brief intervention.”

This research was supported by the Martin McCoy-Jesperson Discovery Grant in Positive Psychology and a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant No. R01 MH085717).

Corbett will continue using theatre techniques to study areas of social functioning among children with autism through a newly awarded grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant No. R34 MH097793). This forthcoming study will explore treatment length and peer familiarity as factors in optimizing and generalizing gains and will enroll more than 30 youth with autism ages 8 to 16 in a 10-week program model beginning January 2014.

To enroll in future studies, contact

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