Children with autism are learning how to better communicate, thanks to catchy rhythmic patterns from Shakespeare. That's the news coming from a new study published in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Researchers said the results showed 14 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improved their language skills and recognition of facial expressions after participating in games based on the plot of "The Tempest." While following the rhythmic meter of the play, facilitators focused on skills such as facial recognition, eye contact, motor coordination, affective imitation, pragmatics of dialogue exchange, personal space, turn taking, affective expression, humor, and social improvisation.
"At the end of the study . . . children with autism showed significant improvement in their social skills and their ability to engage in social relationships," said Marc J. Tassé, co-author of the study, professor of psychology and psychiatry, and director of the Nisonger Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "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."
The study incorporated a set of drama-based social skills known as the Hunter Heartbeat Method, created by Kelly Hunter, an actress in the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. The approach was designed to improve social interaction, pragmatic language, and facial-emotion recognition skills of individuals with ASD.
Each session begins with the children seated in a circle making a "Hello Heartbeat" motion by tapping their hands on their chest, which cues them to begin transition into the session. They are then lead into a series of games based on "The Tempest."
Assessments were done before the tests to obtain baseline information for each child. The children participated in the program one hour per week after school for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, assessments were again made, and parents and participants completed questionnaires about the games. Information was gathered and collated by researchers.
"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," said Maggie Mehling, co-author and psychology graduate assistant at Ohio State. "It just blows me away every time I see how the kids are able to exceed all expectations with their ability to get engaged."
The research is the result of collaboration between the Nisonger Center, the Department of Theatre at Ohio State, the Department of Psychology at Ohio State, Columbus City Schools and the Ohio State University/Royal Shakespeare Company partnership.
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