Autism And Shakespeare

Apr 1, 2013

April is Autism Awareness Month.

A study underway at Ohio State University’s Niswonger Center is exploring a method that uses Shakespeare to help autistic children communicate with others. Alison Holm has more.

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Autism is a complex diagnosis that covers a wide spectrum of social, cognitive and communication disabilities. Each person is unique, and it can be difficult to tailor programs to meet individual needs. OSU’s Nisonger Center has launched a pilot program for autistic kids using the Hunter Heartbeat method that could provide simple, effective – and fun way to reach kids who have trouble reaching others. For 20 years Kelly Hunter of the Royal Shakespeare Company has used the works of the bard to build a bridge to autistic children and reported anecdotal success. Two years ago she approached OSU about developing a more scientific way of measuring the method’s effect. That’s how the Nisonger Center became involved. Director Marc Tasseh says it started last spring with a small program in Worthington, and is continuing with a group of 20 students in a pilot program that began in January.

Tasseh: Kelly Hunter’s worked a lot with Shakespeare and finds that there are patterns and tempos in Shakespeare’s plays that are quite common throughout his different plays, and they’re a sort of this pentamic rhythm. And every Shakespeare intervention starts with a rhythmic beating of the heart and the students beat their heart with their hand and then start off by saying ‘hello’ and go around the group saying ‘hello’….

Once the group is warmed up and in sync with each other, Robin Post, a faculty member from the Theater Department who leads the session and 5 Masters level theater students introduce scenes from Shakespeare’s play the Tempest. They use a snippet of a scene where the girl Miranda teaches the monster Caliban to say his name. After a quick demonstration, they pair off, with the autistic child playing the part of the patient teacher.

Tasseh: And thru these games they rehearse portions of the play, but have an emphasis on skills such as social relatedness, eye contact, engaging your peers, imitation, modeling – features that are often deficient in children with autism. Our preliminary findings last spring we that we were able to measure some significant improvement in the students after a 14-weeek intervention. Significant improvements in terms of their pragmatic language, so their ability to communicate; their social skills, their social relatedness skills; as well as measures of eye contact.

In the current study, Tasseh and the Nisonger Center are comparing the progress of students participating in the Shakespeare pilot program, with the progress of a control group of autistic students receiving standard academic intervention. Tasseh says if the pilot program proves successful, it could be a low-tech, inexpensive and effective tool that could easily be used in schools or after school programs. More information about the study and the Hunter Heartbeat Method is available on the Nisonger Center’s website at