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Study seeks to improve social competence in adults with autism

Apr. 22, 2020, 2:16 PM

Improving social competence in adults with autism is the goal of an upcoming study using the SENSE Theatre program. (photo taken before social distancing.)
Improving social competence in adults with autism is the goal of an upcoming study using the SENSE Theatre program. (photo taken before social distancing.) (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Kelsey Herbers

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center are investigating whether participation in a specially designed theatre program can improve social competence in adults with autism.

The study, backed by $1.3 million in funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, is led by Blythe Corbett, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at VUMC, who established the SENSE Theatre intervention research program in 2009.

The program will use well-established behavioral approaches alongside creative theatrical techniques designed to improve social and emotional abilities in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for whom social impairments are common. Strategies for the program include trained peer models, theatre techniques involving predictable (scripted) and flexible (improvised) role play and repeated performance of newly learned skills.

Previous studies by Corbett have proven the program’s efficacy in children and adolescents with ASD, showing improved recognition and memory of faces and improvements in neuropsychological indicators and playground behavior with peers. This study marks the first time the intervention will be tested in adults.

According to Corbett, few psychosocial interventions exist for adults with ASD even though symptoms persist into adulthood.

When left untreated, the consequences impact nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, including challenges with relationships, school, mental health, employment and engaging with their community.

“There are limited services and a lack of social skills interventions for adults with ASD despite the significant need and desire among adults to engage in meaningful social activities,” said Corbett, who is also an investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC). “I am excited about the possibility that exposure to a peer-mediated program of theatre activities will show similar gains in social cognition, behavior and functioning in daily life for adults as we have seen in children and youth with ASD.”

When it is safe to do so, the study will enroll 40 participants ages 18-35 with high-functioning ASD and will include 10 weekly sessions, a dress rehearsal and two public performances.

To modify the existing SENSE Theatre program for adults, the intervention will include trained adult peers, more age-appropriate theatrical play themes, monologues and individualized character development and performance goals.

The study will assess whether the intervention improved facial memory and recognition, which is a foundational skill for social competence, using neuroimaging and neuropsychological measures. It will also examine whether an improvement in facial memory created sustained, improved functional outcomes for participants with ASD.

“The ability to identify and remember peoples’ faces is a core social cognitive skill that is closely tied to social behavior. Therefore, improving face memory has been shown to have a direct and positive impact on improving social communication and interaction,” said Corbett.

Co-investigators for the study include Sasha Key, PhD (VKC and Hearing and Speech Sciences); Leah Lowe, PhD (Vanderbilt University’s Department of Theatre); Julie Lounds Taylor, PhD (VKC and Pediatrics); Simon Vandekar, PhD (Biostatistics); Emelyne Bingham (VKC and Blair School of Music); Rosevelt Noble, PhD (Sociology); and Katherine Gotham, PhD (Rowen University).

This research is supported by grant MH120149.

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