The Shakespeare and Autism project is a collaborative project between the Ohio State University Department of Theatre and the Nisonger Center, a part of Wexner Medical Center. It is made possible through funding by the Office of Outreach and Engagement Impact Grant program, which is an Ohio State University program designed to support projects that promote academic and research excellence. Each spring, the project provides fun and entertainment to children and adolescents with autism, all while providing new data to the Nisonger Center on how Shakespeare’s plays can affect autism, more specifically, the symptoms that is presents.
The Hunter Heartbeat Method and autism
The Shakespeare and Autism project derives from the Hunter Heartbeat Method, which is an approach developed by Kelly Hunter. Hunter is a British actress for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) of London. She is also the Founder and Artistic Director of Flute Theatre. Her Heartbeat Method takes themes, language, and gestures from Shakespeare’s plays and turns them into sensory games for children on the autism spectrum disorder to participate in. Since children with autism struggle with communication and social interaction, the sensory games teach them to express themselves, make eye contact, recognize facial expressions and spatial awareness, as well as take turns speaking. The children can play characters in a safe and inviting space and explore senses such as seeing, feeling, and thinking – all of which are a part of the common human experience.
Each one-hour therapy session opens and ends with a “hello heartbeat” and “goodbye heartbeat” ritual. The children with autism gather in a circle and pound on their chests to mimic a heartbeat while saying “hello” or “goodbye” to one another and making eye contact. “Right out of the gate, we are addressing one of the core features of autism, which is the struggle with sustained and intuitive eye contact,” said Kevin McClatchy, drama professor at the Ohio State University and leader of the program. This ritual allows the children to practice their facial expressions in communication, as well as to engage and get comfortable around one another. “Transitions frequently cause a level of anxiety for the children, so we use it as a transitional tool. The heartbeat is a familiar, primal feeling and everyone is able to connect to it quickly,” said McClatchy.
The next part of the Hunter Heartbeat Method is the sensory games. Each game includes characters and themes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which speaks specifically to children with autism and allows them to explore imaginative worlds. “The characters are stranded on a strange island. It’s a place where you can’t escape, and there are people there who are not familiar to you, and don’t experience the world in the same way you do,” said McClatchy. The best part is that the games can be customized to play around each child’s strengths and weaknesses. One game in particular, known as “Cramps”, involves acting out a scene from The Tempest where Prospero imposes pain on Caliban. The individual playing Prospero needs to yell out “Cramps!” and the opposing partner Caliban needs to squirm with pain. “In that particular game we are addressing eye contact, spatial awareness, cause and effect, and emotional role-playing,” says McClatchy.
Children significantly improved after the therapy program
Most recently, psychologists at Ohio State University analyzed Hunter’s Heartbeat Method in a 10-week study that involved the participation of 14 children with autism, ages 10-13. Each child took part in the therapy program for one hour every school day. They were given tests before the start of the program and they were assessed once more at the end of the 10-week study. Parents of the children were also asked to fill out questionnaires in response to any behavioral changes that they noticed in their children. According to the researchers’ findings, Hunter’s Heartbeat Method could help children with autism by breaking through their communicative barriers and improving their understanding of language and facial experiences. The researchers also noted that the children’s test results showed significant improvement after the therapy program, resulting in enhanced social skills, language, and facial recognition. “The science confirmed what we had all been experiencing. The children had made statistically significant progress in a number of areas,” said McClatchy.
And the brain scans proved it!
A number of other studies analyzing Hunter’s Heartbeat Method showed quite similar results. In fact, researchers from the Vanderbilt University used neuroimaging techniques to analyze the brain frequencies of the children with autism who had participated in the therapy program. They wanted to see how the children accessed the different areas of their brain, including those vital for facial recognition and emotional expression. The researchers found that the children with autism had brain frequency levels that were similar to those children without autism. What’s more, they found that upon completing their therapy sessions, the children experienced improved social interactions and working memory.
So far, the Hunter Heartbeat Method is showing great promise for children with autism. Researchers from the Ohio State University are planning to conduct a larger study and see how the therapy program affects other aspects of the children’s lives, including levels of cortisol and heart rate variability. They would also like to test out the intervention on older children with autism, in hopes of alleviating existing communication barriers. Even through recent published studies are small and validity in scientific research takes time, several parents of the children who participated in the therapy program stated that they noticed changes in their children right away. One parent stressed that their son wanted to do nothing but play video games on his computer until he got involved in the therapy program. He enjoyed the social setting so much that at one point, he wanted to become an actor. Another parent stated that their daughter absolutely loved the class and she left every session feeling happy. She loved being a part of a group and it made her try even harder at school to make friends.
A Shakespeare workshop to help kids with autism
This year, the Heart of America Shakespeare, a nonprofit organization in Kansas City, had the privilege on hosting Kelly Hunter with the Flute Theater for a 3-day workshop. The workshop, which was held January 7th to January 9th, included teachings on recognizing emotions from facial expressions and using lines from Shakespeare’s plays to perform interactive scenes. Loren Wendelburg, a child with autism, wants to become a professional actor. He is one of the 30 children who took part in the workshop. “I feel like I become more confident. When I get on stage, I feel like I can do anything,” he said.
The Shakespeare and Autism project is continuously expanding its reach. “We are in the process of figuring out how we codify it as possibly a certification program at OSU, and how we can continue to support and help our teaching artists who get trained here and go off to do the work on their own,” said McClatchy. A course for the project is currently being built at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and workshops are being set up in New York City. Even students who have completed the therapy program are now getting involved in theatre at their own schools and within their local communities. “We feel like we are still at the beginning of something that can be pretty incredible in terms of how far, how wide, and how many people we can impact,” said McClatchy.
Photo: 98.1 KMBZ