January 15, 2018

Vanderbilt leads study investigating impact of theatre on youth with autism


Autism researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and two other universities have received a $2.99 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to conduct a four-year multisite project investigating the impact of theatre and peer mediation on the social competence of youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The multisite intervention project is led by Blythe Corbett, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Psychology, and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.

Corbett originated SENSE Theatre, a unique intervention research program that uses well-established behavioral approaches alongside creative theatrical techniques designed to improve the social and emotional abilities of children with ASD. Impaired reciprocal social competence is a primary characteristic of autism.

SENSE Theatre strategies include trained peer models, theatre techniques involving predictable (scripted) and flexible (improvised) role play, and repeated performance of newly learned skills.

“Our previous investigations over seven years at Vanderbilt have set the stage for this large, multisite, randomized control trial,” Corbett said. “It gives us the opportunity to examine the impact of theatre and trained peers to enhance social competence in youth on the autism spectrum. Implementing the interventions across multiple sites for the first time will allow us to test the feasibility and transportability of the intervention.”

In SENSE Theatre, children with ASD, with the assistance of trained peer models, participate as both interventionists and actors in the performance of an original play, which they perform after weekly practices in front of a live audience. Over the course of 10 weeks, the children learn their roles and lines while engaging with peers and practicing socially appropriate skills (e.g., perspective taking, voice modulation) in a fun, low stress environment.

In a prior randomized controlled trial of SENSE Theatre, also funded by NIMH, Corbett found that children with ASD who took part in SENSE Theatre showed improved recognition and memory of faces, suggesting that the theatre intervention helps social information become more important and relevant to children with ASD. Improvements were seen on several measures including playground behavior with peers, neuropsychological indicators, and altered event-related potentials (ERP) in the brain, providing neurological evidence of improved memory for faces.

In this new study, children and adolescents with ASD will be recruited at three sites – Vanderbilt University, SUNY Stony Brook (Matthew Lerner, PhD, site PI), and Virginia Tech (Susan White, PhD, site PI, Rachel Diana, co-investigator). A large sample of 240 youth, 10 to 16 years of age, will participate over the course of four years.

The Vanderbilt SENSE Theatre site is led by Corbett as principal investigator, with co-investigators Paul Yoder, PhD. (Special Education), Sasha Key, PhD. (Hearing & Speech Sciences), and Sonya Sterba (Psychology & Human Development). University School of Nashville (USN) is SENSE Theatre’s community partner, with Catherine Coke, USN theatre director.

For information about taking part in the Vanderbilt SENSE Theatre site, contact SENSELab@vanderbilt.edu, 615-513-9562, or 615-322-4132.

For information about taking part in SENSE Theatre at Virginia Tech, contact Susan White, sww@vt.edu, 540-231-8276.

For information about taking part in SENSE Theatre at SUNY Stony Brook, contact Matthew Lerner, PhD, lernerlab@stonybrook.edu, 631-632-7857.