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Shakespeare Therapy for Autism?

The Bard’s rhythmic speech and exaggerated emotions appear to engage children participating in an unusual new intervention.
April 23, 2014


“It’s quite amazing to see how a Shakespeare play can be transformed into a therapeutic intervention that encourages students to communicate,” says clinical psychologist Marc Tassé, director of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center. Dr. Tassé is leading a study that’s evaluating the effectiveness of a unique autism therapy developed by a Shakespearian actress.

The program requires “a lot of observation, role playing and turn-taking, which are core elements of any social skill teaching,” he says.

The approach began taking shape years ago in London. Kelly Hunter, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, developed what she called the “Hunter Heartbeat Method.” The rhythm of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter creates the sound of a heartbeat, which helps children feel safe, Hunter says. Plus, the exaggerated voices and facial expressions of classic Shakespearean acting may help children who have trouble communicating.

Last year, Hunter began working with researchers at Ohio’s Nisonger Center to see if there’s some science behind her art. Together they completed a successful pilot program with 14 children who have autism. The researchers reported significant improvement in communication, social relationships and language skills. “Things like eye contact, emotion expression, emotion recognition, and expressive communication also improved dramatically,” Tassé says.

Now they are expanding the program to 42 weeks with 20 middle-schoolers. Stay tuned for the results.