A longitudinal study of the impact of O’Sullivan’s Social Drama Model with Children and Young People with Autism in Ireland

By Dr. Carmel O’Sullivan

Since 2004, a team of researchers led by Dr. Carmel O’Sullivan has been working in partnership with Aspire (The Asperger Syndrome Association of Ireland) on developing, testing, and refining a new arts-based social skills intervention for children and young people with a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Called ‘Social Drama,’ this experiential program is a tailor-made model to address the core challenges associated with AS and ASD in a highly engaging multi-modal approach to learning, teaching, experiencing, interacting, negotiating, and most importantly, having fun.


Background to the study

This is the only longitudinal study of its kind in the world, involving many of the same participants who started 12 years ago. The prime motivation for this research came from the realization that although it was recognized that children with AS and ASD lacked the ability to empathize with others, there was little research on how to help them develop this ability, as most studies focused on the outcome rather than the process: on methods to enable participants achieve social skills by imitating or modeling ‘correct’ or acceptable behaviors, rather than helping them decode the images they see and understand the meanings below the surface. Methods such as role playing and drama games were being advocated in isolation of any social, emotional, or logical context, and this study aimed to investigate whether the sustained use of a creative arts approach with specific focus on the use of Drama in Education could lead to a more successful education of children and young people with AS and ASD.


How does it work?

A woman sits in front of a group of students.

Researchers work with Social Drama participants.

Weekly sessions for over 90 participants ranging in age from 7 to mid twenties are organized throughout the school year, typically lasting between 60-90 minutes, with 8-12 students in each class. Each unit explores age appropriate content and skills aimed at augmenting participants’ personal, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Units typically last for 8-10 sessions, and are planned to respond to the interests of participants (such as human interest stories, science fiction topics, crime drama and mysteries, stories involving animated animals and fictional characters, etc.). Research data from on-going formative and summative assessments highlight areas of participant need, such as the ability to negotiate with others, and these form the basis of colorful units of work which operate like a soap opera where vital clues or pieces of information about a character’s life or situation are revealed or discovered week after week. Participants leave sessions wondering for example, what is going to happen next week … Will Mr. Tom be able to negotiate a peaceful solution between Sneaky Peaky and President Butch in order to save the humans who are being held captive in a ‘human zoo’ (example from a social drama where the cats and dogs have taken over the world), or will Sam’s parents find out who he really is and where he’s been since he disappeared 20 years ago (in a teenage social drama about a missing person). Participants are encouraged by the drama teachers to consider during the intervening week, how the characters might resolve the challenges they face, or to practice some of the skills they used in navigating a challenging social situation during drama with their family and peers in school.

The development of O’Sullivan’s innovative ‘Social Drama’ pedagogy involves participants working collaboratively within fictionally created contexts, which are based on a problem posing and problem solving methodology. Highly imaginative and creative characters are presented in various dilemmas which attract the attention of participants, drawing them into the story and engaging them in an active exploration of someone else’s life. Participants follow that character’s life, and work collaboratively with their drama friends to resolve various ‘tricky’ situations as they arise each week. Generic and transferable skills development is planned for, and the units focus on areas such as encouraging and developing imagination, turn taking, maintaining eye contact, listening and responding appropriately to others, collaborating, working in pairs and small groups, visual literacy, reading and interpreting non-verbal body language and tone of voice, changing routines, sharing space, etc.

O’Sullivan’s ‘Social Drama’ model is a social skills intervention which uses playful and engaging drama stories (fictionally based) in an unfolding episodic structure. The fictional aspect of characters and storylines ‘draws’ participants in, and they delight in working to resolve the dilemmas and situations that these creative and colorful characters find themselves in, but as they are fictional, the model provides an important degree of objective distancing from participants’ own real lives. Learning opportunities are gently resonated back through periods of planned reflection in each session.


Research findings:

As a truly longitudinal study involving a team of over 10 researchers who document and record data on each participant using a social skills assessment instrument developed especially for this study, a number of research components have yielded interesting results. For example, in one study examining the weak central coherence (WCC) theory of ASD, our sample performed significantly better on the SAT (social attribution tasks) rather than the PAT (physical attribution tasks), contrary to other studies, demonstrating a greater ability to identify and extract meaning from social and global elements rather than favoring the physical and local elements, more typically associated with ASD.

Participants are rated when they first join the drama group against 33 different abilities and skills, and rated against the same criteria at the end of each year. Over a 12-year period, tests reveal that participants significantly improved on each skill, with all analyses yielding large effect sizes. Specifically, there was a large improvement in children’s general anxiety levels, body contact, imagination, self-confidence, and problem solving ability. Other on-going research is examining the development of 12 sub-types of ASD which is emerging from this study, and the challenge of achieving generalizability of skill development to other social and educational contexts.

The research to date suggests that this model creates a highly effective environment for developing and practicing social and communication skills. Developing trust and understanding over time using this creative pedagogical approach is identified as key to building bridges of communication with peers and wider social contexts, and not behavioral modification through isolated activities involving imitation or role-playing.


Data from this study are being published this year in a number of journals, and lesson plans from the Social Drama model will be available to teachers and practitioners in two books (primary and secondary) later this year.



Carmel O'Sullivan headshotDr Carmel O’Sullivan is the Head of the School of Education and the Director of the Arts Education Research Group in Trinity College Dublin. She is involved in several funded research projects, and is currently working in the areas of drama and Autism Spectrum Disorder, and early childhood education. Carmel is passionate about creative practices and continues to work practically with children and young people on a weekly basis.

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