Ohio State University Researchers Use Shakespeare To Help Kids With Autism

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UPDATED: Monday April 22, 2013 6:31 PM

Most of us have no problem telling if friends are happy or sad - we can read the emotions on their faces.  

But for people with autism, facial expressions often are a mystery.  

They cannot interpret other people's expressions, nor do they show much emotion themselves.  Now, a new study at Ohio State is trying to change that, with the help of one of the world's great playwrights.

A group of children and adults sit on the floor of a Columbus City elementary school gym and tap out the rhythm of their heartbeats.  This is the start of a class in Shakespeare created for children with autism.

"Each game starts with THUNK, THUNK, the heartbeat, which is also the rhythm of life and the rhythm of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare,"said Robin Post, director of Shakespeare and Autism project.

The project, from the OSU Nisonger Center, is testing the Hunter Heartbeat Method in Columbus City Schools, to see if the therapy helps autistic children learn to communicate.

After the tapping exercise, the kids are encouraged to get up and mimic OSU theater students, who act out the parts of a character from one of the plays.

"There's lot of children with autism who don't typically make eye contact. They're not comfortable with it, and that starts to develop. We're seeing that develop," Post explains.

Kelly Hunter, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, created the therapy more than two decades ago by coupling the rhythm of Shakespeare's language with dramatic interpretations of his characters.

The OSU researchers have heard stories from other experts that this system helps autistic children recognize emotions in other people, and show emotions themselves.  Now, they're looking for scientific evidence that it works.

"They're engaged in practicing parts of a play. And in this case the play is Shakespeare's 'TheTempest’,” said Dr. Marc Tasse, director of fhe OSU Nisonger Center.

The goal, he said, is "improving eye contact, improving social engagement, social interaction, communication skills, as well as expression and recognition of emotions."

"We give them a chunk of text, and we're all right now, let’s act it out.  Let's do something with it," said OSU theater major, Andrew Trimmer.

Tasse said a shorter pilot study in Worthington last year, provided encouraging results.

"We saw some significant improvements between the beginning and the end of the intervention. The students' communication skills, in their social skills, in their pragmatic language skills,” said Tasse.

After the 42-week study ends, the OSU team will compare results between this class and another class of autistic children who were not involve to see how the therapy helps.

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