Shakespeare helps children with autism

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On a stage at Ohio State, children with autism spectrum disorder explore Shakespeare with actors, and this is what you might see if you were in the audience.

Kids and adults sit in a circle patting a heartbeat rhythm on their chests to a cadence that Shakespeare favored in his verse: da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. (We’re referring to iambic pentameter for you enthusiasts.) They pair up – actor and child – for games based on the play "The Tempest," trading dramatic facial expressions or acting out lines of dialogue. Back in the circle, the children take turns in the center demonstrating what they’ve prepared.

Children come away from the classes with more experience recognizing facial expressions, holding conversations, taking turns, talking in front of people and enjoying humor and being silly.

They learn to transition in and out of an activity through the hello and goodbye heartbeats tapped out in each of the sessions, offered in collaboration with the Nisonger Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

In fact, a study by Ohio State researchers documented how the approach, developed by actress Kelly Hunter of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, improved skills that can be a struggle for children with autism spectrum disorder, such as understanding nonverbal behavior and making eye contact – keys to communicating and making friends.

Even better is the praise from one mom, Heather Davis, who says her son, Chase, started taking an interest in letting their dog out and helping with chores after 10 weeks of classes with actors from Ohio State’s Department of Theatre using the Hunter Heartbeat Method.

She was skeptical before she saw him on stage.

“It was like watching a completely different child for those few moments, and he loved it. He absolutely found pure joy in it.”

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Study results, published recently in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, showed better language skills, recognition of facial expressions and ability to engage in social relationships.

“These children are taught these core skills in a very relaxed and playful environment, where it's almost like they're not aware they're being taught,” says study co-author Marc Tassé, PhD, a Psychology and Psychiatry professor and director of the Nisonger Center, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

Maggie Mehling, co-author and psychology graduate assistant at Ohio State, says she is amazed each time she watches the children exceed all expectations in engaging with others.

“You interact with someone, you enjoy yourself and you get that intrinsic reinforcement of socializing – children with autism don't always get to experience that.”

The Shakespeare and autism program is just one of the Nisonger Center's many services, including a program to ensure quality care follows people with autism into adulthood.

The research highlights the collaboration between the Nisonger Center, the Department of Theatre, the Department of Psychology at Ohio State, Columbus City Schools and the Ohio State University/Royal Shakespeare Company partnership.

See the Hunter Heartbeat Method in action:

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