autismChildren with autism who participate in drama and performance-based activities may demonstrate improved levels of communication and interpersonal interaction, research has found.

Researchers at the University of Kent undertook a project entitled ‘Imagining Autism’ where children with autism engaged in a series of interactive sensory environments such as ‘outer space’, ‘under the sea’ and ‘the arctic’. Each environment was designed for them to encounter a range of stimuli and respond to triggers created through lighting, sound, physical action and puppetry.

Using trained performers in each of the environments, the work aimed to promote communication, socialisation, playful interaction and creative engagement, encouraging the children involved to find new ways of connecting with the world around them.

The research found changes in children’s behaviour, including in several areas identified as deficits in autism, such as social interaction and emotion recognition. The severity of autistic symptoms displayed by the children, which were rated by their parents and teaching staff were also found to decrease significantly.

All of the children showed at least some improvements on at least one of the measures used to monitor change during the research, with in excess of three quarters showing changes to more than one.

Furthermore, just under one third of the children showed significant changes on a measure of social interaction. Substantial changes in children’s behaviour at home were also reported by some families.

The research was conducted in special needs schools in Kent, including one residential school run by the National Autistic Society (NAS). The practical methods used in the project are currently being trialled at all NAS schools in the UK and are being developed into training programmes for teachers, care workers, families, arts practitioners, and health professionals.

Positive responses

Principal investigator, Professor Nicola Shaughnessy, of the University of Kent’s School of Arts, said: “Imagining Autism has been an extremely exciting collaboration producing a number of really interesting outcomes and new discussions between arts and science research. We are delighted that the extremely positive responses to the work from all involved with the project have been endorsed by statistical results.

“The methods we used in the research have been recognised as having potential for development in the diagnosis of autism, revealing areas of ability, as well as difficulty. The work has also offered insights into the imagination of children with autism and the importance of play-based approaches which can often be overlooked post-diagnosis.”

Unlike previous drama-based interventions, the study employed a variety of assessment techniques, undertaken by psychologists of the University’s Tizard Centre and School of Psychology. These included formal, psychological research tools, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale, alongside feedback from teachers and families whose children took part in the project.

Dr Julie Beadle-Brown from the Tizard Centre added: “We are pleased with the results and believe that this study has provided strong enough evidence to justify further research into the impact of the intervention on children with a range of different needs, as well as research to help us understand how and why the intervention appears to work.”