Theater activities used in autism therapy

January 18, 2012 3:55:05 AM PST
One in every 110 children is diagnosed with some level of autism. For many parents, this usually means problems with communication and little interest in interacting with others. However, a new program is changing how we look at autism by putting kids in the spotlight.

As a carefree 10-year-old, Kerrick Coble doesn't hold back. But he wasn't always like this. When Kerrick was 2, the Cobles' started noticing something was different about him.

"With a lot of kids you would give them something and they would play but with Kerrick there was never an 'I'm just going to play,'" Kurt Coble, Kerrick's dad, said.

At 3 years old, Kerrick was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD-NOS, a mild form of autism. Now, researchers at Vanderbilt University are using the theater to help improve the lives of kids diagnosed with the disorder -- from mild to severe.

"We really want to understand whether these social experiences are really stressful for some of our children," said Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the sense theater at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

Dr. Corbett looks at social and communication skills before, during and after the camp and looks at stress levels by measuring one of the primary stress hormones -- cortisol. In three different studies, Dr. Corbett found acting improved the way kids expressed themselves and they also showed lower stress levels.

"The cortisol level was quite high when they first arrived the first day but after the rehearsal, it actually went down quite a bit," Dr. Corbett said.

So Far, Kerrick's been in two plays, even landing the lead role in his last performance.

"I've seen a big difference in his initiating skills," said Michelle Coble, Kerrick's mom.

Helping his new found skills take center stage.

For most people, cortisol-level production tends to be greater in the morning than at night, but Dr. Corbett's research found children with autism show higher cortisol toward the end of the day, which was related to daily stress from changes experienced during the day.