Shakespearean language may sound unfamiliar or intimidating to some children, but at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, educators are successfully using Shakespeare as the cornerstone of theater workshops for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). OSU’s Shakespeare and Autism program not only offers an exciting arts learning opportunity for young participants with ASD, but also provides hands-on training for university theater students as teaching artists for students with disabilities.
The Shakespeare and Autism program grew out of OSU’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While RSC actor Kelly Hunter was at the university in 2009 to lead Shakespeare workshops for graduate students, she proposed incorporating her program for young people with ASD, called the Hunter Heartbeat Method, into the partnership. The success of an 11-week pilot program led to a collaboration between the OSU Department of Theater and the Nisonger Center, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. The Nisonger Center embarked upon a 42-week longitudinal study on the impact of the Hunter Heartbeat workshops on children with ASD.
The results of the Nisonger Center’s study were published in 2016 in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. They showed that participation in the Shakespeare and Autism program led to significant improvements in social involvement, language skills, and identification of facial expressions for children with ASD.
Kevin McClatchy, assistant professor of theater and director of the Shakespeare and Autism program, says the Hunter Heartbeat Method is rooted in the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language and exploring the mind’s eye. “Shakespeare was so great at putting words to feelings, and our workshops help kids express what being alive feels like to them. It gets exciting,” says McClatchy.
McClatchy teaches a Shakespeare and Autism class in the theater department every spring semester. During the 15-week service learning course, undergraduate and graduate students spend the first five weeks studying the Hunter Heartbeat Method and learning about ASD from scholarly reading, research, and guest speakers. After the first five weeks, they begin to lead Shakespeare and Autism workshops with two groups of 12 children with ASD from the Columbus area.
The workshops always begin with a heartbeat circle, in which everyone pats the rhythm of a heartbeat on their chests and says hello. McClatchy describes the circle as a great transitional tool and acknowledgment of a shared moment. After the heartbeat circle, the teaching artists lead the children in games based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which provides a central storyline throughout the workshops.
The teaching artists might begin with a game like “Changing the Face,” when they would introduce the half-fish, half-monster character of Caliban. They make an angry face, attach an angry heartbeat, and go around the circle doing an angry hello. That moves into throwing the face across the circle to someone else who will catch it, and ultimately involves attaching Caliban’s text to the throw as well. Teaching artists model the games, and for certain activities, break the children into small groups for practice before returning to the large group.
McClatchy says the play-based games aim to develop skills like recognition and replication of facial expressions, taking turns, sustaining eye contact, and understanding cause and effect, all using Shakespeare’s text as a starting point. He also describes the practical learning opportunity for the university students as “incredible,” adding that real learning for any teaching artist happens when you actually do the work, adding, “You must be present in the moment and respond to every particular need. A strategy that works one week may backfire the next session. The OSU students are amazing in their ability to respond.”
For more information about the Shakespeare and Autism program, visit OSU’s website.