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.