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Shakespeare Helping Individuals with Autism Express Themselves

This guest blog post is by Kelly Hunter, Director of the Ohio State production, "The Tempest" - an interactive show designed for individuals with autism. Kelly is the author of a book called Shakespeare's Heartbeat. This show is a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and Ohio State University. Watch the WBNS-10TV report on the program below. 

I've been creating and playing drama games with children on the spectrum since 2002. The children play these games one on one with actors providing an intense and enjoyable communicative experience.  These sensory games use the fundamental concepts of Shakespeare to challenge the children giving them the opportunity to explore eye contact and spatial awareness, improve their speech and language and encourage sensory awareness. Above all the games are really fun to play and allow the children to explore and express their feelings within a safe environment where all emotions are allowed. 

My work now forms the basis of a longitudinal study at Ohio State University wherein groups of children play the games on a regular basis and their communicative progress is evaluated against a control group of children not receiving the intervention.  After two years of research the results are looking very positive and will be published next year. 

But I'm a theater person. I live and breathe in small dark spaces where action is focused by light and heightened by music allowing time to stop and feelings to be expressed. My vision for my work has always been theatrical and after years of playing in the cold light of gyms, classrooms and medical centers I have created The Tempest - a theater piece for children with autism. We premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon last month and open in Columbus Ohio this week. 

Children on the spectrum make up the tiny audience for each performance, sitting with six actors in a circle on the floor around a beautiful painted floor cloth, which represents Prospero's island. The actors invite the children to join them on the island as the story unfolds through the sensory games, which the children and actors play together.  The result has been - in the words of a parent whose fourteen year old took part in Stratford-upon-Avon - a phenomenal success. 

Although the games and the narrative remain the same for each performance, the show is completely different every time depending on the nature of the children and young people who attend.  By the end of each show the children have been able to assert their own personalities within the space and many have expressed that they have 'found their voices for the first time'. At a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon during one of the quieter games - Ariel's Trance where the only sound is the single female voice of Miranda - one young man, an articulate high functioning twenty year old began to speak out loud as he played, describing himself as an exploding star finding his place in the universe. He spoke for some minutes of trees and nature and feelings, comfortable in the space, at ease with the actors and intent on expressing his innermost feelings.  

I have witnessed many breakthroughs over the years as children emerge from the shadows of their autism as a result of weeks, months and years of playing these games in workshop settings. However the almost immediate emergence that so many of the children experience through playing the games within the transformative space of this theatrical experience is overwhelming. Their reaction and that of their parents and teachers convinces me to continue to make theatre for individuals with autism.  Further national and international performances of "The Tempest" will follow in 2015.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.