When most people think of autism interventions, they probably picture spending time with a psychologist or therapist, but could there be other ways for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to learn social skills? Blythe Corbett, Ph.D. and associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University thought so. Corbett led a study to determine if theatre could function as a form of autism intervention. The results demonstrated that it could be; the participants showed improvements in a variety of social and interpersonal skills by the end of a theatre camp.

The program is called SENSE Theatre (social emotional neuroscience & endocrinology) and it takes the form of a two-week theatre camp for children with ASD aged eight to 17. The children and teens participated in theatre activities alongside neurotypical peers who were trained in modeling social interaction and communication skills. The young people engaged in role-play and improvisational activities, ending the camp with the public performance of a play.

The researchers measured the children’s social perception and interaction abilities, as well as their cortisol (the stress hormone) levels before and after camp. The children were assessed via neuropsychological measures, peer play, and parental reports.

The results demonstrated significant improvements in face processing, social awareness, social cognition, and the duration of interaction with familiar peers during camp. Furthermore, there were positive changes in psychological stress and in self-reported parental stress.

These results indicate that it is possible to receive treatment in unconventional ways—through alternative activities and peer support. It is also encouraging that the young people with ASD could make gains despite the short duration of the program.

“Our findings show that the SENSE Theatre program contributes to improvement in core social deficits when engaging peers both on and off the stage. This research also shows it’s never too late to make a significant difference in the lives of children and youth with autism spectrum disorder, as [SENSE] targets children who are much older than kids who are participating in early intervention,” stated Corbett.

This study is published in the journal Autism Research.

Learn more about how iLs works with autism on our autism page.

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