Imagining Autism, a pioneering research project led by the University of Kent to investigate how drama-based activities may play a key role in helping autistic children’s development has reported preliminary success at a special milestone event.
The 30 month research project, funded by a 350k grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), involves undertaking a series of immersive, play-based methods and improvisation, puppetry, physical performance and interactive digital technologies with autistic children in multisensory environments – portable tent like structures.
Imagining Autism shared some of its findings at a dedicated event to mark the end of the practical phase of interventions. Held on 11 December at the Helen Allison School, one of three special schools in Kent involved in the project, the event was attended by over 50 invited guests, including teachers and families associated with the work, as well as professionals from health, education and the arts.
The event enabled the research team to demonstrate the methods used during the research, including an experience of ‘Outer Space’, one of the five sensory environments designed for the project. The environments allow the children to encounter a range of stimuli and respond to triggers, created through lighting, sound or physical action. Using performers in each of the environments, the work is designed to promote communication, socialization, playful interaction and creative engagement, encouraging participants to find new ways of connecting with the world around them. Researchers from the project are investigating whether this experience enhances language, social interaction, empathy and imagination, three areas identified as deficits in autism.
Principal researcher, Nicola Shaughnessy, said: ‘The practical work has been incredibly exciting and has led to some unexpected outcomes such as insights into the unusual imagination, perception and humour in autism. As a collaboration between arts and science, we are also developing new ways of working across subject areas as well as new approaches to training for work of this kind.
‘We have been overwhelmed by the positive responses we’ve had to the work from schools and families and it is the breakthrough moments with the individual children which make this project so rewarding.’
The event featured presentations from the research team, led by Professor Nicola Shaughnessy and Dr Melissa Trimingham from the University’s School of Arts, who explained the practical methods and processes involved, whilst Dr Julie Beadle-Brown of Kent’s Tizard Centre also spoke about the evaluation measures being used.
Presentations from Victoria Scott, an educational psychologist based at the Helen Allison School, reported her perceptions of the impact of the project and a testimonial from a parent whose child has been participating was also featured. The parent spoke about the transformation she has seen in her child’s behaviour and communication since the interventions started, describing it as “a little miracle”.
The research will now enter its final phase where results will be analysed by Dr Julie Beadle-Brown and Dr David Wilkinson from the University’s School of Psychology to see if the practical interventions have made a difference to the children through a range of tests undertaken before and after the practical phase.
The project’s innovative methods, which differ from more conventional skills-based and behavioural approaches, have attracted international interest resulting in Kent’s drama researchers undertaking presentations in the USA. The project will also be featured at the National Autistic Society’s annual conference in the UK in March.
It is hoped that the results from the research could lead to a full-scale trial and may also prompt changes in approaches to other communication disorders in children.
For more information on the project, visit www.imaginingautism.org.