From The Dispatch.com:
OSU study introduces autistic children to the Bard to improve their social skills
Shakespeare’s The Tempest isn’t the most realistic play, with a plot involving a magic-induced storm and a character who is half-devil.
But the fantastic tale and exaggerated emotions, some people think, can help children with autism in everyday life.
Using excerpts from the play, volunteers from the Ohio State University Theater Department are working with Columbus schoolchildren with autism to improve their eye contact, recognition and expression of emotion as well as other social skills that can be difficult for those with the disorder.
The students’ progress over 42 weeks is the subject of a study at OSU’s Nisonger Center, the first research facility to look at the “Hunter Heartbeat Method” developed by British actress Kelly Hunter.
Hunter, who initially formed relationships with Ohio State through the Royal Shakespeare Company, had no experience with autism when she began teaching Shakespeare at a special-needs school in 2002.
Through trial and error, she found that autistic children seem to benefit from reciting lines in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter rhythm (hence the “heartbeat”) and from using their imaginations to portray the expressive characters.
The Ohio State study, she hopes, will produce scientific evidence of the success she has seen.“Children who never spoke before start speaking; children who have never made eye contact — their parents and teachers are amazed they’re now doing that,” said Hunter, who lives in London. “Anecdotally, it’s fantastic.”
Hunter recently visited Winterset Elementary and Ridgeview Middle schools, where students since January have participated in a weekly program led by OSU theater professor Robin Post and five actors who are either OSU students or recent graduates.
At Winterset, she met two 10-year-olds at opposite ends of the autism spectrum (two others were out sick). Although Neil Plunkett didn’t return Hunter’s greeting, Julian Ackerman ran into the cafeteria and shouted, “Nice to meet you!”
To warm up for the class, actors and students established a circle and a heartbeat rhythm, patting their chests as they chanted, “HEL-lo, HEL-lo.” Hunter then asked them to add various emotions, hoping that the children would imitate the actors — so animated that they seemingly wept with sadness and their veins bulged with anger.
The group then took turns portraying various characters in short scenes from The Tempest. Although the kids think it is a game, the adults try to draw out social skills in the repetitive scenes.
One asks the children to make eye contact as characters Ferdinand and Miranda meet and fall instantly in love, standing close and staring into each other’s eyes.
In another scene, rebellious slave Caliban sneaks up behind Prospero and exclaims, “Toads, . . . beetles, . . . bats!” When Prospero whirls around, Caliban ducks out of view from his master, who shouts, “Abominable monster!”
“The confusion is making him angry, because that’s what makes us angry,” Hunter explained, trying to help Julian express the appropriate emotion.
Although the students have good days and bad, the actors have seen their communication skills improve over time.
Julian, who initially insisted that every Shakespearean character was a cat, assumes different roles and remembers lines (although he sometimes requires a gentle reminder that perhaps Prospero need not yell so much).
Neil, seemingly expressionless in the first part of the recent class, began giggling every time he and the actors, playing Caliban as a group, hit the floor to hide from Prospero.
Later in the class, actor Alex Boyles, 27, heard the boy speak for the first time. Boyles, playing Miranda as she teaches Caliban to pronounce his name, was repeating “Cali-, . . . Cali- . . .” when he heard Neil quietly add, “ban.”
Hunter always assumes that children are processing the activities — some just might need more time to respond.
“You should never underestimate what’s going on in someone’s mind if they have autism,” she said.
Nisonger Center researchers evaluated the students’ social skills at the program’s beginning and will do the same at the end of the 42 weeks, comparing their gains to those in a control group of children who didn’t learn Shakespeare.The study will wrap up in fall 2014, after OSU adds a second Shakespeare session at Winterset and another at Arts Impact Middle School.
If the program proves effective, center director Marc Tasse said it could easily be replicated in other schools. Hunter’s method, he said, incorporates techniques used in other autism work, including repetition, imitation and exaggeration.
“When I saw the intervention for the first time, it kind of struck me as brilliant,” he said. “It does a lot of things that we would do . . . but does it in a very drama-based way.”
Actors are advised not to worry about the research but to focus on engaging students in the program. There aren’t right and wrong reactions for the students — and the same is true for the actors, said OSU junior Genevieve Simon, 20.
“It’s about trying something new, trying to make a connection with someone,” she said. “Nobody’s failing in any way; everyone is making a new discovery.”