Acting out in Public School: How a Theatre Program Can Impact Imitation Skills in Children with ASD

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
S. Paterson1, M. D. Lerner2, T. R. Goldstein3, T. S. Toub4, R. Golinkoff5 and K. Hirsh-Pasek6, (1)Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, (2)Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, (3)Department of Psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, (4)Psychology, Temple University, Ambler, PA, (5)University of Delaware, Newark, DE, (6)Temple University, Ambler, PA

Does theater arts improve social emotional skills in ASD children? A growing body of work suggests that it might, with improvement in social behavior (Lerner et al., 2011), emotional recognition (Lerner & Mikami, 2012; Mehling et al., 2016), peer interaction (Guli et al., 2013; Corbett et al., 2015), theory of mind (Corbett et al., 2013; 2016), and anxiety (Lerner et al., 2012), Notably, however, most of these studies have been done on select samples of children who have the opportunity to go to specialized programs. Few investigate the effects of programs that are available to the wider community. Further, most of these studies examine only student outcomes rather than focusing on the stakeholder’s perception of the effectiveness of that curriculum. In this study, we investigate the impact of an ongoing theatre arts program in a public school, incorporating the views of stakeholders (e.g.,teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals) into our measurement of students’ performance


To assess children’s social, emotional, and motor imitation skills before and after participation in an already existing school-based theatre arts program, evaluating those aspects of functioning stakeholders involved in the program thought were important.


76 participants (74% male), aged 8-18 years old took part in a naturalistic study of a theatre arts program in a New York City public school for children with special needs. The program lasted for 40 sessions and was part of the regular school curriculum. Parent report of autism symptoms (SRS) was assessed. In person measures of imitation included the Rogers Battery (Rogers et al.,2010), Imitating Hand Position from NEPSY, and imitation trials of a Simon Says task. In person measures also assessed executive function (Simon Says) and social-emotional functioning (SEL-Web). Measures were chosen based on previous work with stakeholders working in the program (Goldstein et al, 2017) and were administered at the beginning of the academic year (Time 1) before participation in the program and again at year end (Time 2).


Standard scores on Imitating Hand Position significantly increased from Time 1 to Time 2, indicating improvement in core motor imitation skills. (t(29) = -2.34, p<.026). In addition, higher imitation skills on the Rogers battery positively predicted change on the SEL-Web (b =.299, p<.01).


Stakeholders have endorsed imitation as an important outcome for children with ASD likely because it represents a potential portal for developing social skills. Indeed, imitation scores predicted change in social-emotional skills. Further, the fact that imitation skills improved in a public, not selective, school environment from Time 1 to Time 2 suggests that theater arts might be a conduit for the development of these foundational skills. Although significant differences were not seen in social-emotional skills per se from Time 1 to Time 2, these small gains in imitation are encouraging and provide an important step in more fully understanding school-based theatre interventions.