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Life Lessons: Shakespeare in autism therapy

By Nancy Werteen, Anchor / Reporter, NWerteen@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 18 2014 04:00:00 AM CDT

Life Lessons: Shakespeare in autism therapy

William Shakespeare has inspired millions of people over hundreds of years, and now researchers hope to use his work in a whole new way - as a novel therapy for children with autism.

Doctors say many children with autism have trouble communicating and sharing emotions appropriately, but teaching them the works of Shakespeare appears to help.

“It’s quite amazing to see how a Shakespearean play can be transformed into, really, a therapeutic intervention,” said Dr. Marc J. Tassé, director of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center and principal investigator of this unique intervention.

The program requires “a lot of observation, role playing and turn-taking,” said Tassé, “which are core elements of any social skill teaching, and something many of these children struggle with,” he said.

It’s an idea that actually started years ago in Great Britain.

Kelly Hunter, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, developed a program for children with autism called the “Hunter Heartbeat Method.”

Her idea was to use the exaggerated voices and facial expressions of Shakespearean plays to help teach children who have trouble communicating.

“Two major themes underpin the work: the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, which creates the sound of a heartbeat, within which the children feel safe to communicate,” says Hunter.

“The second is an exploration of the mind's eye, allowing children to explore imaginative worlds, which may otherwise be locked away,” she adds.

Now, she’s teaming up with researchers at Ohio State’s Nisonger Center to see if there is some science behind her art.

For 42 weeks, researchers will teach elements of Shakespeare to 20 students to see if there is some proof that it helps them become more engaged and better communicators.

Children with autism often struggle to communicate. Many avoid eye contact, don’t understand the context of conversation and may miss visual cues from others around them.

But by allowing children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study with student actors who are engaging students in Shakespeare-based activities, the hope is that they will improve their socializing and communication skills.

“In this intervention with middle school children with autism, we’re using Shakespeare’s play, 'The Tempest,'” said Tassé, who is also a clinical psychologist.

“It’s quite amazing to see how a Shakespeare play can be transformed into a therapeutic intervention that encourages students to express themselves and communicate.”

Hunter and Robin Post, faculty in Ohio State’s Department of Theatre and program director of the project, have trained a team of Ohio State graduate and undergraduate theatre students in the implementation of the Hunter Heartbeat Method. They are working closely with producer Lesley Ferris, also with Ohio State’s Department of Theatre.

“She has what we would call a lot of anecdotal evidence, but there hasn’t really been any empirical evidence,” said Tassé, who is working closely with Ohio State psychology graduate student Margaret Mehling. “We are trying to figure out scientifically what exactly happens with Shakespeare that strikes a chord with these children.”

After a successful pilot program last year involving 14 children, Ohio State is now conducting a more scientific study involving children with autism who are enrolled in Columbus schools.

One group will study Shakespeare while another group will not. That way, researchers can better isolate what it is, specifically, that’s helping these kids.

“With the first pilot study, we saw some significant improvement in communication, in social relationships and in pragmatic language skills,” said Tassé. “Things like eye contact, emotion expression, emotion recognition, and expressive communication also improved dramatically.”