Two weeks in a theatre camp for children with autism spectrum disorder can help autistic children to significantly improve their social cognition and perception, and daily living skills, says a new study by Vanderbilt University. The study was released on Oct. 22, 2013, and was published in the journal “Autism Research.” The participants and their parents also reported reduced physiological stress.
The program is called SENSE (Social Emotional Neuroscience & Endocrinology) Theatre. Autistic children ages 8 to 17 years were matched with non-autistic peers who were trained to model communication and social interaction – challenging skills for autistic young people. The camp used techniques such as improvisation and role-play to ultimately create public performances.
“The findings show that treatment can be delivered in an unconventional setting, and children with autism can learn from unconventional ‘interventionists’ – their typically developing peer,” said lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.
The researchers used neuropsychological measures to evaluate social perception abilities and interaction skills before and after the camp. They also analyzed the participants’ play with peers and parental reports. The researchers also measured the stress hormone cortisol through saliva samples that were taken at the participants’ homes, at the beginning of camp, and the end of camp. On the first day of camp, cortisol levels rose when compared to the home measurements, but declined during post-treatment play with peers and by the end of treatment.
The researchers found significant improvements in:
- The ability to process facial expressions
- Awareness and knowledge of social interaction
- interaction with peers, which significantly increased during the camp
“Our findings show that the SENSE Theatre program contributes to improvement in core social deficits when engaging with peers both on and off the stage,” Corbett said. “This research also shows it’s never too late to make a significant difference in the lives of children and youth with autism spectrum disorder, as [this program] targets children who are much older than kids who are participating in early intervention, yet we are still seeing significant gains in the core deficits of autism, and in a rather brief intervention.”
A new study plans to enroll more than 30 youth with autism ages 8 to 16 in a 10 week program beginning January 2014.