Suzanne Reading, Ph.D., director of the Communication Sciences and Disorders program in Butler’s College of Communication, has contributed some of the first scholarly evidence that involvement in theatre may help people with autism develop better social and communication skills.
She and her husband, speech-language pathologist James Reading, Ph.D., developed an original rating form covering 24 social behaviors, used in the pre- and post-testing of eight students with autism participating in a 10-week theatre program in Chester County, Penn.
Compared to a control group, the students in the theatre project showed significant gains in four social behaviors that people with autism often struggle to master: displaying appropriate emotions, offering to help without prompting, controlling temper and acknowledging the perspective of others.
The Readings’ daughter, Samantha Bellomo, is resident director of The People’s Light and Theatre, the site of the project. She arranged grant funding and worked with the eight students from The Pathway School (ages 17-21) to produce the play “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
All three Readings and Pete Pryor, Pathway’s drama teacher, presented findings from the theatre project at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association national conference in November.
Reading believes their presentation was selected because it offered actual measured results on the subject. “We think children with autism benefit from theatre. There’s been anecdotal evidence before, but we need controlled data,” she said.
People with autism tend not to be aware of the reactions of others, and may not modify their behavior accordingly, Reading said. This can leave them socially isolated, which they may not consider a problem.
In contrast, participation in theatre requires responsiveness to others, Reading said. “It’s all about talking with others, accepting criticism and cooperating.”
The behaviors measured by the Readings’ survey list — things like eye contact, expressing emotion and interest in others, teamwork, and accepting criticism — weren’t specifically taught in the theatre program, she said. “Samantha didn’t say to the students, ‘Today, we’re going to work on self control.’ “
Rather, as the students rehearsed lines and built sets, they realized that they had to converse and cooperate. Any student disruptive to the process was removed from the group temporarily to collect themselves. “The kids were motivated to control their own behaviors because they didn’t want to miss anything,” Reading said.
And, that, she said, points out a finding worth sharing with her students and professional peers.
“We may be good at therapy, but we’re not always good at the ‘fun factor’ ” of what interests clients, she said. “So many times, children with speech or hearing disabilities are not given fun, glamorous things to do in therapy. Putting on ‘Tom Sawyer’ was rewarding for these students.”
Media contact: Mary Ellen Stephenson