Reimagining Autism: Drama, Theatre, Autism and the Illuminating Blind Spots of Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Spectrum Conditions’ was an interdisciplinary collaboration between drama and psychology at the University of Kent (2011-14), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). As communication, social interaction and social imagination are core characteristics of theatre as well as being diagnostic features of autism spectrum disorders, theatre methods are attracting increasing interest in the field as interventions with the potential to help children with autism connect to the social world (Corbett, 2016, Lerner et. al. 2016).
The project assessed the feasibility and justification for further research of this novel school-based theatre intervention. Participatory performance techniques (emerging from the field of applied theatre) extend the skills-based approaches of role-play and social scripts to engage children through improvisation and intensive interaction. The approach involved small groups (3-4) of autistic participants (22 children aged 7-12) with varying levels of ASD interacting with practitioners in themed multisensory scenic environments.
A theme of this paper is the lessons to be learned from the inter spaces of collaboration between disciplines: questions of what constitutes evidence, the exposure of methodological “blind spots” and the ways in which the practice has subsequently cast new light on imagination and gender
1.To establish the feasibility of the intervention and whether it produces measurable effects;
2.To develop a template for the creative laboratory, including programmes of training for practice-based autism research.
3. To evaluate the efficacy of drama as a research tool for autism
The original research involved a series of immersive installations, contained within the ‘pod’, a portable structure (functioning like an interactive multi-sensory room). The environments were designed to facilitate communication, social interaction, imagination and imaginative play. Participants (22 children with varying levels of ASD, aged 7-12) encountered a range of stimuli, triggers and responsive technologies.
Before and after the intervention, study participants completed measures of social interaction, communication, emotion recognition, and parents and teachers questionnaires before and up to twelve months after the intervention. Feasibility was evaluated through process (recruitment, retention, blinding, inter-rater reliability, willingness of children to engage), resources (space, logistics), management (dealing with unexpected changes, ease of assessment), and scientific data (statistical analyses).
Children, parents and teachers reported high satisfaction with the intervention; missing data was relatively low; key assessments were implemented as planned; evidence of potential effect was demonstrated on several key outcome measures. Some reported difficulties were encountered with recruitment, test administration, parental response, and setting up the pod.
Imagining Autism may be a feasible approach particularly for special education schools. Strengths include the novelty of the approach, implementation in the real world; education settings, focus on sensory processing and imagination. However, it was the unexpected insights emerging from the project that are the focus of this paper and that are consistent with new developments in autism research: specifically, recognition of social creativity in autism and what the practice revealed about female presentations of autism.