The Washington Post

Autism and Shakespeare: Ohio State researchers study Hunter Heartbeat Method

Robin Post, the program director of the autism and Shakespeare study at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, works with students at an elementary school in Columbus. (Handout photo/Courtesy of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center)

Researchers at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center are working with a group of middle school students in Columbus to see if Shakespeare’s plays can help children with autism spectrum disorders make gains in communication and in understanding and expressing emotions.

The study is based on the Hunter Heartbeat Method, which was developed about 20 years ago by Kelly Hunter, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Hunter’s theory, according to Marc Tassé, director of the Nisonger Center, is that Shakespeare’s work, because of its meter and exaggerated expression of emotion, is particularly well suited for theater interventions for autism.

The Ohio State researchers are using “The Tempest” to teach the study’s 20 participants subtle clues about emotions; they will study the children over the course of 42 weeks to see if the method yields results.

The students “practice how to express emotions differently, and observe how that emotion may present itself differently in the facial reaction and tone of voice of others,” said Tassé, the principal investigator of the study. . “Sometimes that’s a challenge for kids with autism, reading those subtle social cues.”

According to Tassé, Hunter believes the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s verse mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat, and each session begins with students tapping their chests. Participants then re-enact scenes from the play to work on expressing emotions.

“They go around the circle and take turns doing an angry voice, with an angry face, and observe the other students and the theater students doing angry, then sad, then happy,” Tassé said.

The study is broken into two groups of 10 students from across the autism spectrum. One group is working with members of the theater department at Ohio State on the Hunter Heartbeat Method for about an hour once a week through next May (with a break for the summer). Members of the other group will receive only the therapy or services they normally would get, Tassé said.

At the end of the study, both groups will be assessed on their use of language in social situations, social skills and ability to recognize others’ emotions. A pilot study last year looked at results in 14 students over the course of 10 weeks. In that study, Tassé said, researchers noticed significant improvements in communication, peer relations and adaptation skills.


Children with autism gain language at greater rate than previously thought

Adults with autism tell Congress more funds are needed for services

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.