Theatre for Autism Intervention

Dr. Susan White
Dr. Susan White

UA researchers are investigating the effectiveness of a novel intervention for autism—theatre.

Funded by the National Institute of Health and partnered with Vanderbilt and Stony Brook University, the 10-week program, called SENSE, pairs local Tuscaloosa children with autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 10 and 16 with non-autistic peers to rehearse and perform a theatrical stage production. This is the first Alabama-based trial of the SENSE Theatre Intervention Program.

Dr. Susan White, director of UA’s Center for Youth Development and Intervention and the Doddridge Saxon Chair of Psychology, is spearheading the program as the site principal investigator for the UA trial along with the assistance of psychologists, doctoral students, and the Tuscaloosa Academy theatre department.

“What we’re doing is conducting a multi-site trial between Stony Brook, Vanderbilt, and The University of Alabama to enroll a total of 240 students across these sites over a four-year period,” White said. “The theatre teacher at Tuscaloosa Academy, Sarah Margaret Kates, serves as the theatre director for SENSE, so she works closely with the program. Every Saturday we have parents drop of their kids around noon, and we work with the kids until about 5 p.m.”

Through the practice of collaborative, behavioral, and theatrical techniques, SENSE seeks to improve emotional and communal functioning, facial expression recognition, and verbal queues of children with ASD while providing a space beyond therapy to put these skills into practice. Some of the most popular theatrical techniques students learn include facial mimicry exercises, miming and mirroring exercises, and voice exercises that draw on volume and intonation.

“As a clinical psychologist who’s been doing intervention work for many years, this is the first time I’ve been in a trial where none of the kids know they are part of a treatment,” White said. “I think one of the hardest parts about working with teenagers is getting their emotional involvement and investment, so it’s exciting to see that nobody is looking at their phone to check when it’s time to go, and they’re truly just enjoying themselves and having fun.”

With only one round of the program completed, the SENSE intervention has already yielded promising results on both clinical and personal levels for the students involved. The first session’s students put on an insightful October show called Hats. The thoughtful performance required students in the program to create and develop their own characters who must find a hat that outwardly represents their personality to wear for the rest of their lives.

“We had kids in the audience for the October performance who weren’t even in the SENSE program who were so blown away by how well everyone did,” said White. “There is a real depth in the relationships that develop in this program, and the interpersonal impact I have seen translates to the kids and their parents seeing what they are truly capable of.”

As for the future of the trials, White is looking to expand its reach into the greater Tuscaloosa area and enroll about 45 more children with autism over the next year and a half for future performances.

“The challenge is recruiting and getting the word out to people in the Tuscaloosa area about the program,” White said. “I hope to keep SENSE alive at UA as long as there is an interest from the community for a program like this. It has scientifically proven benefits as well as a large social benefit, and I think the program itself is well on its way to being a curriculum that can be readily disseminated to other clinical practices and institutions.”