Autistic kids are thriving in “Shakespearean therapy”

The bard can fix anything.
The bard can fix anything.
Image: Courtesy: Big Ten Network
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

William Shakespeare didn’t just give us exquisite poetry; he gave us groundbreaking therapy. The words of England’s national poet have helped rehabilitate prisoners, mental health patients, and people with dementia, among others. Now, Shakespearean verse has been adapted in a novel therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The therapy, called the Hunter Heartbeat Method, pulls themes and plot points from Shakespeare’s The Tempest into theatre games that coax kids with ASD into practicing some of the skills that their disorder makes particularly challenging: creating eye contact, recognizing the emotion behind facial expressions, taking turns speaking, and standing an appropriate distance from another person. And according to new research, the therapy appears to boost social skills in children with ASD.

Kelly Hunter, a British actress for the Royal Shakespeare Company, developed the Hunter Heartbeat Method about 10 years ago, after taking a Shakespeare program into a special school near London and noticing how well the students with ASD responded. Two main principles underpin her method: the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, which Shakespeare used and which imitates the da-dum of a human heartbeat, and “an exploration of the mind’s eye, allowing children to explore imaginative worlds, which may otherwise be locked away.”

In the one-hour therapy sessions, a small group of middle school-age children with ASD and student actors from the university’s theatre department (one actor for every two or three children) sit in a circle and play sensory drama games inspired by The Tempest. They act out throwing and catching a mask of “anger,” for example, and make other exaggerated facial expressions. Every session opens with a ritual called ”Hello heartbeat,” in which the children and actors pound on their chests to mimic a heartbeat while chanting “hel-lo” to each other, and make eye contact with each individual in the room. The sessions end the same way, with a “good-bye” heartbeat, allowing the children to transition out of the special hour of therapy.

Children with autism, who have trouble with transitioning to new activities, non-verbal gestures, empathy, and making friends, naturally benefit from the “poetic exploration of human communication” in Shakespeare’s work, says Hunter.

Hunter chose to adapt The Tempest for her method because of the play’s intense emotions, as personified by its characters; one of the play’s main antagonists is Caliban, who personifies anger, and who must be taught how to say his name and socialize in what becomes a comic scene in the therapy sessions. The actors take the role of Caliban and the children with ASD become his teachers.

Psychologists at Ohio State University recently studied Hunter’s method in a 10-week trial involving 14 children, ages 10 to 13, who participated in the program for one hour every school day. Their findings, published in Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, suggest that the method helps children with autism sharpen their understanding of language and facial expressions.

The participants, who were given baseline tests before the the program began, were assessed again at the end of 10 weeks. The authors reported that the students showed significant improvement in standard tests conducted before and after the therapy for autism-related delays in social skills and communication, pragmatic language, and facial emotion recognition. Parents and caregivers who watched the Heartbeat Hunter method in action and filled out questionnaires about the intervention were awed by the therapy’s effect. Robin Post, a drama professor at OSU who directed the sessions in Ohio, reported seeing one child’s aide jump up with tears in her eyes as she watch the girl she cared for become transformed. According to the study’s authors, one parent said of her son that she “heard his laughter and knew that he was enamored … He was engaged and soaking up the energy and even participated as part of a group and that is uncommon.”

A handful of other drama therapy studies have shown similarly promising results. Earlier this year, research from Vanderbilt University showed improved communication and social skills and better memory for faces in children with ASD who had participated in a 10-week, 40-hour drama therapy program. In that study, scientists used brain-imaging technology to look at brain-frequency levels in the children who had completed the program as one part of the research. They found that the kids who had been in the program had brain frequency levels that were more similar to children without autism.

The OSU researchers would now like to conduct a larger, more robust study, with the hope that the method not only shows therapeutic promise, but is easy to administer.