Poetry teaches autistic kids the art of communication
William Shakespeare has written many stories, and in each, there’s always a lesson to learn. The Bard has recently started teaching in a new way to a unique group of learners. The students? Middle school children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The lesson? Better communication.
A 42-week study conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center seeks to find out if Shakespeare texts taught in a certain way can help autistic children improve their communication skills. The study has 20 participants from Columbus area schools.
Communication can be a struggle for children with autism. Eye contact may be difficult for these children, along with understanding the context of conversation and missing social and visual cues from those around them.
But the director of the Nisonger Center and lead researcher on the study, Dr. Marc Tassé, said in a statement that children with ASD may be able to improve their socializing and communication skills by interacting with student actors from Ohio State University who engage students in Shakespeare-based activities.
Dr. Tassé, a clinical psychologist is using Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as the model for this “therapeutic intervention.” A specific technique, called the Hunter Heartbeat Method, is used in conjunction with the play to encourage the students to communicate and express themselves.
Kelly Hunter, an actress in the London-based Royal Shakespeare Company, created the Hunter Heartbeat Method about 20 years ago. The method marries the rhythmic Shakespeare language with physical gestures. Hunter contacted Ohio State and asked researchers to develop the study protocol.
Hunter said in a statement that her methodology take advantage of Shakespeare to release communication blocks within autistic children. “Two major themes underpin the work,” said Hunter. The first is “the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, which creates the sound of a heartbeat, within which the children feel safe to communicate.
“The second is an exploration of the mind’s eye, allowing children to explore imaginative worlds, which may otherwise be locked away,” she said.
This is the second study of its kind, and last year’s pilot study, according to Dr. Tassé, revealed significant improvement in communication, social relationships and language skills. “Things like eye contact, emotion expression, emotion recognition and expressive communication also improved dramatically,” he said.
Dr. Tassé and his team of researchers hope to have some preliminary data on this approach by the end of the year. “We can then compare if the gains that we see in the children who participate in the Shakespeare intervention are greater than the gains other children with autism are achieving through just regular school and just regular intervention,” said Tassé.
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