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Reading Shakespeare may help autistic kids communicate better

Press Trust of India
Mar 31, 2013 at 12:42pm IST

Washington: Teaching strategies based on texts by English poet and playwright William Shakespeare may boost communication and socialising skills in autistic kids, scientists say.

Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Nisonger Center are allowing children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to study with the university's student actors who are engaging students in Shakespeare-based activities.

The hope is that they will improve their socialising and communicating skills, said Dr Marc J Tasse, director of the Nisonger Center and principal investigator on the waitlist control trial studying the unique intervention.

Reading Shakespeare may help autistic kids communicate better

The idea originated about 20 years ago in Great Britain with Kelly Hunter, an actress in the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, who developed the 'Hunter Heartbeat Method'.

"In this intervention with middle school children with autism, we're using Shakespeare's play, The Tempest," said Tasse, who is also a clinical psychologist.

"It's quite amazing to see how a Shakespeare play can be transformed into a therapeutic intervention that encourages students to express themselves and communicate," Tasse said.

The research project is a collaborative effort with the Nisonger Center, the Ohio State University Department of Theatre, Columbus City Schools and the Ohio State University/Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) partnership.

The Nisonger Center is the only place in the United States testing this idea, said Tasse. The idea originated about 20 years ago in Great Britain with Kelly Hunter, an actress in the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, who developed the 'Hunter Heartbeat Method'.

Her signature approach pairs the recitation of Shakespeare's rhythmic language with physical gesture.

Now, students in the Ohio University's Department of Theatre are teaming up with researchers at the Nisonger Center to try and figure out exactly what it is about Shakespeare that reaches these children with autism, when many other approaches may not.

"The distinctive methodology I have created uses Shakespeare to release the communicative blocks within children with autism," said Hunter.

"Two major themes underpin the work: the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, which creates the sound of a heartbeat, within which the children feel safe to communicate," said Hunter.

"The second is an exploration of the mind's eye, allowing children to explore imaginative worlds, which may otherwise be locked away," Hunter said.

The current 42-week study will involve 20 children with autism. By the end of the year, researchers hope to have some preliminary data on their approach, said Tasse.

"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 Tasse.

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