Art Meets Science in Children's Autism Theater

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In her Davis home Teresa Nunes says it gets pretty hectic raising her 9-year-old twin boys. Ben and Jeremy both have autism and she’s always looking for new ways to help improve their social skills.

“It’s not involving singing typically and so I think that’s really helped them, they like the singing, it doesn’t really seem like work.” 
The boys go to rehearsal at a Davis community theater about three times a week. And when they’re not there…they can practice at home on the computer.

“What happens is that they’ll look at this one, this is one of their favorites, 'Wan’na Be Like You,' so when we click on this the boy will start singing the parts that my boys would sing. This is a great tool at home, it’s really been helpful.” 
Jeremy sings along and bops up and down, doing the dance moves... 

(Sounds of singing) 

This kind of behavior is exactly what Blythe Corbett wants to see. Corbett is a pediatric neuropsychologist at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute. She also started the SENSE Theater.

“It gives them permission to just sort of open up, have a good time, they see their peers doing it, and it’s been a fascinating experience too that some of our children who don’t often speak they’re starting to engage in some of these songs, and starting to move and dance more fluidly.” 
Corbett says beyond observing how the kids behave she’s also testing their chemical reactions as part of her research.  

“Children with autism often experience a lot of stress, especially in interacting with others, so we’re measuring that through cortisol, which is one of our primary stress hormones, and we take samples from the children to see how this impacts their stress and we compare that then to their behavior.” 
Corbett says eight autistic children are taking part in the nine week program. Other child actors lead the songs and are designated “buddies.” But Corbett says she’s aware that such an active environment can be overwhelming for the kids. And that can make it hard to keep rehearsals on track.

“Just like any child there’s always surprises, what worked yesterday might not work today so we just have to have a lot of tricks up our sleeve and have a lot of tools in the tool box.” 
Some of those tools are breaking off in small groups, practicing songs and rewarding the kids for participating.

(Sounds of rehearsing)

That’s Ben and Jeremy Nunes again practicing “Wan’na Be Like You,” but this time at rehearsal, not in front of their computer.

“It’s just amazing to watch the progression that they’re making every time they go.” 
Teresa Nunes says her boys actually approach other children to talk at the rehearsals. And she says they’re more social at school too. In the end she says it’s all about confidence.

“There’s lots of things that I think are just going to be experiences that they take away from this, that look at me I can do this and that’s all I’m asking for.” 
Researcher Blythe Corbett says this is the only study she knows of that puts autistic children in a theater setting to see what happens to their stress levels. She wants to publish the results in some academic journals. And she’ll share the findings with other researchers and actors who might want to start their own autism theater.