Post by Amy Hess, site coordinator for the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State’s Nisonger Center, in Columbus, Ohio.
A few years ago, I participated in an acting workshop run by actress and director Kelly Hunter, in partnership with The Ohio State University. I was asked to participate as both a parent and the site coordinator for our Autism Speaks ATN center.
Kelly, a member of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, is the creator of “The Hunter Heartbeat Method,” a therapy program for children with autism. (For more information on the Hunter Method, see “Shakespeare Therapy for Autism?”)
As Kelly puts it: "The distinctive methodology I have created uses Shakespeare to release the communicative blocks within children with autism. Two major themes underpin the work: the rhythm of the iambic pentameter, which creates the sound of a heartbeat, within which the children feel safe to communicate. The second is an exploration of the mind's eye, allowing children to explore imaginative worlds, which may otherwise be locked away."
Kelly had taught the foundations of the Hunter Heartbeat Method to The Ohio State University Master of Fine Arts in Acting (MFAA) students and was offering Shakespeare sessions to local families of children with autism – with great success.
I helped organize some of these sessions. And as a mother of a child with autism, I watched our son, Henry, respond with enthusiasm.
In 2013, researchers at our ATN center began working with Kelly and the participating children to objectively study whether and how the program improves their social communication skills. (See video above.) Kelly has a book coming out later this month and anticipates publishing her findings in a research journal later this year.
An original play about autism
Then last January, nine of the Ohio State actors began creating an original play based on their experiences working with children with autism and the Hunter Heartbeat Method. “In Here Out There” explores the journey of a 13-year-old girl named Callie. She’s a bit of a tomboy and obsessed with superheroes. She is also on the autism spectrum.
The show explores Callie’s challenges and triumphs in connecting with those around her. It also brings her rich inner world to life.
The play explores elements of the Hunter Heartbeat Method and even has a character modeled after Kelly Hunter. But it’s much more than that. It explores the dynamics of Callie’s family and how autism affects their lives.
Input from the autism community
The cast invited several members of our ATN family advisory committee to participate in the writing process. We joined early read-throughs of the play and watched early rehearsals as the dialogue and characters evolved.
Each time we met, we offered our “family perspective” on the characters. It was a powerful experience to see the dynamics of a family affected by autism take shape and play out on stage. I also recruited families from our ATN center to participate in these feedback sessions.
In the weeks leading up to opening night, our ATN center promoted the play with flyers at Autism Speaks Walks and through email. Our local Autism Society also collaborated with us to promote the play. The response from our children and families was overwhelmingly positive.
In November, the play opened for ten successful performances.
One of the highlights for me was a scene in which Brent Ries – playing Callie’s father –captures the financial stress that behavioral therapy and occupational therapy places on the family. The final straw for his character was a $14 bag of gluten-free pretzels!
In another scene, Callie’s sister Celia (played by Camille Bullock) asks, “Do you think I’ll have a child with autism?” Camille brought autism’s sibling dynamics so powerfully to the stage!
And of course there’s Sarah Ware, who played the main character, Callie, with so much respect for the child who sees the world through the lens of autism.
Kelly Hunter and the cast of “In Here Out There” have opened up the world of autism to so many people here in central Ohio. We hope her therapy program and this wonderful play will reach many more families in the months and years ahead.