a theater as seen from the stageA new study from the University of Kent contributes to the growing body of research regarding unconventional treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The researchers conducted a pilot study into using theater to help children with autism learn critical social and communication skills. The results indicate that participation in a drama program could provide lasting benefits, but more evidence is required to know for certain how theater can support people on the spectrum.

The researchers tested the program, called Imagining Autism, with 22 children aged seven to 12. The children participated in one 45-minute session each week for 10 weeks. The sessions consisted of activities in a themed environment, like forests or outer space, that engaged all five senses with lights, sounds, puppetry, and interactive digital elements. Trained performers interacted with the children and encouraged them to engage creatively with the environment and each other.

To evaluate the participants’ communication, interaction, and imagination skills, the researchers assessed the children before they started, between two and six weeks after finishing, and a year after Imagining Autism. The researchers evaluated typical autism behaviors, emotional regulation, and theory of mind skills. They also collected subjective ratings from the children’s parents and teachers.

All of the participants demonstrated some improvements in the early post-intervention assessments, the most significant of which was recognizing facial expressions; nine of the children were able to recognize more facial expressions and six children developed better social interaction skills. A year later, they found that most of the children’s improved skills had persisted.

The pilot of Imaging Autism was small, so it is too soon to draw definite conclusions, but the positive results to call for further study. This project also corroborates other studies demonstrating drama can support people with ASD.

“It’s an opportunity for children to create their own narratives in an unconstrained, unfamiliar environment. They find this empowering, and we know from the psychology literature that individuals who are empowered enjoy increased attention skills and an improved sense of well-being,” said David Wilkinson, the study’s lead psychologist.

This research was presented at the AISB50 Conference at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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