The Positive Impact of Theater and Peer Mediation on Youth with Autism

January 16, 2018 | by Dena Friedman

For theater performers, an afternoon or evening under dimmed house lights provides a brief and presumably welcome respite from the routines of everyday living. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), however, an innovative program seeks to use theater to boost children’s self-confidence and comfort with everyday social interactions amid different surroundings.

Autism researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (TN), SUNY Stony Brook (NY), and Virginia Tech (VA) have received a nearly $3 million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to conduct a four-year multisite exploration of the impact of theater and peer mediation on the social and emotional competence of children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. Impaired reciprocal social competence is a primary characteristic of autism.

SENSE Theatre, a unique intervention research program that uses well-established behavioral approaches alongside creative theatrical techniques, is the brain-child of project leader

and principal investigator, Dr. Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Psychology, and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. The program utilizes trained peer models, theater techniques involving predictable (scripted) and flexible (improvised) role play, and repeated performance of newly learned skills.


Children with ASD, with the assistance of the trained peers, participate as interventionists and actors in the performance of an original play. For ten weeks, the children practice their respective roles and lines while engaging with peers and practicing such socially appropriate skills as perspective taking and voice modulation in a fun, low stress environment.  The children then perform for a live audience.

In a prior NIMH-funded, randomized controlled trial of SENSE Theatre, Dr. Corbett found that children with ASD who participated in the theater project showed improvements in several measures such as playground behavior with peers, neuropsychological indicators, and altered event-related potentials (ERP) in the brain, providing neurological evidence of improved memory for, and recognition of, faces.

“‘Our previous investigations over seven years at Vanderbilt have set the stage for this large, multisite, randomized control trial,” Dr. Corbett said. “It gives us the opportunity to examine the impact of Theatre and trained peers to enhance social competence in youth on the autism spectrum. Implementing the interventions across multiple sites for the first time will allow us to test the feasibility and transportability of the intervention.”’

In this new study, children and adolescents with ASD will be recruited at three sites – Vanderbilt University, SUNY Stony Brook (Matthew Lerner, Ph.D., site PI), and Virginia Tech (Susan White, Ph.D., site PI, Rachel Diana, co-investigator). A large sample of 240 youth, 10 to 16 years of age, will participate over the course of four years.

Source: The Winchester Herald Chronicle

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