New research from Vanderbilt University suggests that drama classes are particularly useful for improving those skills. Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, in 2009 began teaching kids ages 7 through 18 with high-functioning autism about drama at her SENSE Theatre program. As a former professional writer and actor, she was already convinced that “acting is transformative.” At her 10-session, 40-hour program, kids learn traditional drama exercises, like role-playing and improvisation. Paired with peer models—typically developing kids who are slightly older, exceptionally mature, and trained—these children sing, learn the lines to a play, and give a final performances for parents and the public.
“When you talk with a person with autism about something that is interesting to them, they can do it,” Corbett said, explaining that kids with autism have difficulty with flexible and reciprocal conversations. “Their challenge is when you switch topics.” They also have trouble recognizing faces and managing stress. All these problems can undermine their relationships with teachers, friends, and family, and, later, their ability to land a job. Corbett’s camp is aimed at helping autistic children improve in these areas.
In a recent study, she compared kids in her program with those in a control group and found that participants in the drama class were better able to recognize faces, understand different perspectives, and regulate anxiety. Using brain-imaging technology, she found that the kids who completed the program had brain-frequency levels that were more similar to children without autism. The improved face memory may be explained in part because the students are directly engaging with peers. Because gathering social information is an integral part of acting, they are forced to focus on those cues and stimuli. They have to learn to be more flexible in their thinking and behavior, especially when asked to improvise. It challenges their concrete thinking style and stretches them.
Other experts have found similar benefits of drama therapy for children with autism. Researchers at the University of Kent found that children with autism could recognize more facial expressions after they participated in a drama program. Children who participated in the Social Competence Intervention Program, another drama-based intervention, improved their ability to play cooperatively, share, speak with respect, communicate while smiling, and say appropriate pleasantries, like please and thank you. There’s even a program at Ohio State University in Columbus that utilizes Shakespeare’s rhythm of iambic pentameter to help children feel safer when communicating, the outcomes of which aren’t yet clear.
Interviews with leaders of two dramatic-arts therapy groups in my area in New Jersey also touted the benefits of these exercises. Anna Villa-Bager said her daughter with high-functioning autism was not permitted to participate in her public elementary school’s after-school arts program. “I was devastated ... My background is in the professional world of singing and acting. For my daughter to not have that experience with peers was crazy.” To help kids like her daughter, in 2007 she began MarbleJam Kids, an after-school group based in River Edge, New Jersey, that provides art, music, and movement therapy to about 120 kids on the autistic spectrum. (My son is currently enrolled in its dramatic-arts program and may participate in their film camp this summer.)