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SENSE Theatre study finds play participation increases social skills in autistic youth

Jul. 13, 2023, 11:20 AM

SENSE Theatre students act in the play Circus del Sé.
SENSE Theatre students act in the play Circus del Sé. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Danny Bonvissuto

Together with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and ACM Lifting Lives, SENSE Theatre recently presented a two-night performance Circus del Sé. Written by Blythe Corbett, PhD, James G. Blakemore Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the SENSE Lab, the play about a young boy with aspirations of joining the circus featured 12 typically developing peer students and actors and 12 children with autism.

Through theatrical games and role play, they entertained the crowd and, according to a study published the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, sharpened their social skills in measurable, meaningful ways.

One in 36 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental condition that effects cognitive function, communication and social skills. Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (RO1 MH114906), the multisite randomized clinical trial, conducted between 2017 and 2022, is the largest to date on the impact of SENSE Theatre, which Corbett started in 2009.

“The purpose of the study was to see if SENSE Theatre, a unique social skills program that includes trained typically developing peers, theatrical techniques and active performance of a play, can enhance social competence in youth 10 to 16 years of age with autism spectrum disorder,” said Corbett, who was the principal investigator.

The final sample in the study involved 207 autistic youth from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, University of Alabama and Stonybrook University who were randomized to SENSE Theatre or Tackling Teenage Together, an active control treatment condition. Investigators used a neuroimaging method called event-related potentials to examine incidental face memory (IFM) and other areas of social competence before treatment, immediately following treatment and two months after treatment.

Immediately following treatment, youth in the SENSE Theatre group showed brain-based changes in IFM. Follow-up behavioral changes included clinically meaningful improvement in spontaneous communication and interaction with peers.

“The findings show that the interactive theatrical intervention enhances social salience for relevant social information, such as faces, and this increased social interest results in greater motivation to engage with others,” Corbett said. “As clinicians, it is important to consider novel ways to treat social skills beyond individual and group didactic approaches. Moreover, it is valuable to develop and study innovative ways to provide treatment for our patients that may otherwise be overlooked.”

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