Effectiveness of Improvisational Theater Intervention in a Community Setting in Improving Social Skills and Reducing Personal Distress

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
K. Paszek1, M. Kinnear1, M. Deyski1, G. Kramer2, R. Ploesch2 and I. Fishman1, (1)SDSU Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, (2)Unscripted Learning, San Diego, CA
Background: In the context of a community-university partnership we examined the effectiveness of an improvisational comedy theater in improving social interaction skills in teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). These skills are taught during the 6-week program through various games and improvised scenarios designed to help individuals explore and laugh with each other. There is early evidence that theater interventions such as musical theater productions can improve socioemotional functioning in children with ASDs, including social awareness, social assertion, trait anxiety, and even cortisol levels (Corbett et al., 2013).

Objectives: To evaluate effectiveness of the Unscripted Learning (UL) Connections program, a community-based intervention program rooted in improv theater and comedy, on anxiety, social competence, empathy, and cognitive flexibility in teens with ASDs, using pre- and post-intervention design.

Methods: To date, thirteen youth with ASDs participating in the Connections program have been enrolled (with the new participants continuing to enroll as new Connections sessions commence). Results reported here are based on the longitudinal data from 9 adolescents who have completed the pre- and post-intervention assessments to date. Prior to the start of the program (baseline) and at the completion of the program (post-intervention) students completed the Social Skills Improvement System, Self-Report (SSIS-RS) and the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children, 2nd Edition (MASC-2). Parents completed the MASC-2 parent-report, Social Responsiveness Scale, 2nd Edition (SRS-2), Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, 2nd Edition (BRIEF 2), Social Communication Questionnaire, Current (SCQ), the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), and demographic forms. Follow-up assessment (at 4 months following the program completion) will be completed to test the long-term effects of the intervention.

This sample includes thirteen adolescents (10 male, 3 females) ages 13-19 years (mean = 16). Four out of thirteen participants indicated comorbid Bipolar Disorder, Global Delay, Brain Injury and Cerebral Palsy, and two of thirteen reported a diagnosis of Intellectual Disability.

Paired sample t-tests were conducted to examine the effects of the program on the SSIS-RS Social Skills, the MASC-2 Social Anxiety (measured with both self- and parent-reports), BRIEF-2 Shift and Self-Monitor subscales, SCQ Total Score, all four IRI subscales, and SRS-2 Social Awareness and Social Communication.

Results: Significant improvements post-treatment have been detected on the SSIS-RS Social Skills (effect size=0.99) and the IRI Personal Distress Subscale (effect size=0.84). Measures of Social Awareness (SRS-2), Self-Monitoring (BRIEF-2) and Shift (BRIEF-2) revealed moderate change (effect sizes=0.33-0.57). Other measures of socioemotional functioning did not reveal significant change.

Conclusions: These preliminary findings demonstrate that teens with ASDs showed some improvement in social competence, social anxiety, social responsiveness, empathy and executive function, following a 6-week improvisational theater program. This community-based improv theater intervention shows promise in improving the socioemotional functioning in teens with ASDs. These results are consistent with previously demonstrated effects of theater intervention on social awareness (e.g., Corbett et al., 2013) and further contribute to our understanding of improv theater as an effective intervention significantly impacting social skills and reducing personal distress in teens on the spectrum.