Does Drama Therapy Work For Autism? 🎭


Teacher With Male And Female Drama Students At Performing Arts School In Studio Improvisation Class.

This article is evidence-based, verified by Ashleigh Willis, a Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate.

Dramatherapy is a therapeutic intervention that leverages the creative aspects of drama. Using voice and movement in a safe environment allows self-expression and communication. Dramatherapy can help with a wide variety of interpersonal challenges. Therapeutic intervention is especially useful for people who struggle with verbal communication. It can also help people who find it hard to express emotions. 

For people with an autism spectrum disorder, interacting and communicating with others is challenging. Difficulties with expressing thoughts and emotions can cause issues for people with autism. This is especially true when trying to navigate daily interactions with others. As any carer of someone with autism will know, relating to how someone with autism feels can be hard. This can cause stress for both parties.  

Using ‘theatre as therapy’ provides a new and supportive type of creative therapy. These therapies can be especially helpful for adults and children with autism. 

What is drama therapy?  

Drama therapy aims to harness the expressive and healing properties of drama. The objective is to foster creativity, imagination, learning, emotional insight, and personal growth. Drama and theatre offer unique tools for communication and understanding.  

Qualified therapists provide Dramatherapy. These therapists are trained in theatre, drama, singing, and movement. They also have a broad understanding of psychology. The therapy combines movement, play and non-verbal communication. The aim is to open channels of communication and build patient-therapist relationships.

The treatment aims to foster new ways of expressing emotion and communicating thoughts. Dramatherapy be particularly useful for people who find it difficult to communicate verbally. It’s also helpful for people who have trouble expressing emotions 

As with all creative therapies, the process is more important than the outcome. Through various exercises, patients discover new ways of understanding and expressing emotions.  

Dramatherapy is accessible to all. The therapy doesn’t require any pre-requisite training or experience. Throughout the treatment, participants will learn about drama and theatre. Activities don’t always rely on verbal communication. This makes the therapy ideal for people with autism.  

What does drama therapy look like?  

A qualified drama therapist always conducts Dramatherapy sessions. Sessions can take place in all sorts of environments. Sessions may run in private therapy practices, hospitals, schools, and community centers.  

The length of a drama therapy session will vary dependent on the needs of the participant. It will also depend on whether the meeting is being conducted on an individual or group basis.  

Drama therapists often say that therapy is concerned with ‘the whole person.’ They aim to understand the experiences, hopes, fears, aspirations, thoughts, feelings, and senses of a person. As a result, sessions are usually tailored to the needs of the patient.  

A crucial aspect of the success of drama therapy is the patient-therapist relationship. Many therapists will treat the first session as an evaluation session. Through this session, they can learn more about the person and build a rapport. The therapist may also discuss the unique needs of the individual with them. They may also consult families and doctors. This helps the drama therapist understand the needs and goals of a therapy program.  

Dramatherapy sessions are structured, which is an aspect that many people with autism find supportive. However, despite having a lot of structure, much of the content of the session will be ‘client-led.’ This allows the freedom for self-exploration in the therapeutic space.

The therapist will ensure that each session runs at the patient’s own pace and will respond to their movement and needs. It is thought that giving control over the speed of the meeting allows the participant to feel in control. It helps to empower them as they work through various forms, movement, and play.  

There is a wide variety of activities that can take place during a drama therapy session. However, many for these will relate to the main concepts of movement and play. 

Movement exercises in drama therapy encourage exploration of a new movement. During this time, the therapist will move with the patient. Moving at the same time as the patient helps to build relationships and build skills such as eye contact.  

Throughout the session, participants are encouraged to explore emotions through exaggerated body language. Movement during drama therapy can be a form of practice for non-verbal communication skills. This is helpful for people with autism who find these difficult to understand.  

Play is another element of drama therapy that is helpful for children and adults with autism. Play includes improvisation, roleplay, and verbal or non-verbal storytelling. Play can help people tap into creativity and self-expression. This type of activity aids social interaction, emotional expression, and problem-solving.  

Dramatherapy can be a very sensory experience. Elements that engage the senses, such as touch, sound, and colors, are often used. Props are sometimes incorporated into roleplay and storytelling activities. These aspects can be tailored to the individual. If someone needs more sensory experience, then this can be elevated. Or, this can be decreased if the individual is sensitive to sensory stimuli. 

How can drama therapy help people with autism? 🎭

Verbal therapies 

Dramatherapies, which include speaking, are helpful for teenagers and adults with high-functioning autism. These individuals lead relatively independent lives. They also often have a sense of what they would like to achieve. However, they can find it difficult to express their desires and engage with the social world.  

For these types of people, drama therapy gives a supportive environment where they can rehearse aspects of life. They can also connect with any emotional attachment in a non-threatening environment.  

Roleplay activities are used to practice challenging situations that the person might encounter. This can be events such as job interviews, dates and funerals. Through these exercises, the client engages with their therapist about how to act and communicate in these scenarios.

After playing these roles, the patient can reflect on the emotions which arise during these situations. This type of practice can also be a way of exploring the specific needs of the clients. Roleplay may highlight particular skills that they wish to improve on.  

Roleplay or fantasy-like activities can also provide release from painful emotions. The individual can create and engage with imagined worlds. They may also choose to become a character during a session. This type of activity can offer a place of refuge from challenging emotions. It can also allow them to take a ‘birds-eye view’ of their feelings. From this perspective, they can reflect on their experiences with the support of a therapist.  

People with high functioning autism may find that group drama therapy sessions work well. The group environment can foster vital social interactions in a supportive way. These sessions can help them practice social skills. These sessions also prevent feelings of loneliness which adults with autism often struggle with. Developing peer relationships provides a sense of belonging. During group sessions, participants can also learn from each other.  

Group therapy also includes an element of spontaneity. Participants cannot predict or control exactly how each session will go. People with autism sometimes struggle to cope with the unknown. Experiencing unpredictable situations in a structured way builds coping skills. These types of skills are crucial for dealing with future unforeseen circumstances.  

Non-verbal therapies 

Some people with autism spectrum disorder have no formal language. Dramatherapy can overcome this barrier by using alternative forms of communication.  

Drama therapists have developed creative methods of accessing non-verbal communication. These types of activities include: 

  • Encouraging appropriate touch 
  • Movement 
  • Listening to recorded music, 
  • Using props and objects 
  • Voice exercises 
  • Mirroring movement 
  • Creating songs 

Dramatherapy activities like these are beneficial when no verbal communication is available.  

A typical behavior observed in people with autism is repetitive movement. Movement is the primary way in which non-verbal people with autism communicate. Working toward broadening their ‘movement vocabulary’ is often a key goal of drama therapy.

Drama therapists will aim to expand the types of movement patients make using exercises. They often invite the individual to amplify and exaggerate their movements. During the session, drama therapists mirror the patient and communicate through movement. 

Props and objects can also be helpful when the patient has no formal language. By using these objects, individuals can engage in activities known as ‘projective play.’ During projective play, the participant projects emotions onto an external object.

This can provide distance and make complicated feelings easier to manage. This method is often especially helpful, where individuals are not comfortable with touch.  

Both therapists and families attest to the incredible benefits of drama therapy. Many well-designed surveys of parents report high rates of improvement in social skills. Dramatherapy is not as well-researched as other therapeutic interventions. But, there are some data to support these testimonials. Here are some of the key findings from psychology and neuroscience research:  

  • Group drama therapy can improve face identification. It can also help with the ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to understand the perspective of others). Regular practice of social interactions during drama play can social and perspective-taking abilities.  
  • Throughout a 3-month program, peer-to-peer interactions significantly increased during sessions. This indicates that participants get comfortable with social interaction throughout the drama therapy program. 
  • Group drama therapy significantly reduced levels of the stress hormone, ‘cortisol.’ This was especially clear over the first few sessions of drama therapy. This provides strong biological evidence for the anxiety-reducing effects of drama therapy sessions.  
  • Research has shown that drama therapy can also reduce autism-related behaviors. Researchers highlighted improvements in hyperactivity and lack of attention.  

How can drama therapy help other conditions? 

Dramatherapy has proven particularly useful for the treatment of autism. However, the benefits stretch to many other mental health issues. 

Anxiety and Trauma 

Neuroscience research has begun to reveal that improvisational drama therapy conclusively combat stress. Researchers think this happens because improvisation activates the ‘default mode network.’ The ‘default mode network’ is better known as the ‘flow’ state.  

‘Flow’ is a mental state in which you become fully immersed in performing an activity with a positive and energetic focus. In this state, every action, thought or movement flows naturally and effortlessly. ‘Flow’ is underpinned by interactions between distinct brain regions from different networks. In essence, areas that don’t often communicate start talking. Enhance creativity, and reduced stress are the outcomes of this communication.  

Improvisation exercises in drama therapy have been shown the elicit this state of ‘flow.’ During improvisations, participants can explore concepts creatively in a low-stress environment. Patients often find a new perspective on anxiety and can develop new ways of coping. The unique perspectives, along with stress- reduction, make a perfect anxiety remedy. 

In particular, improvisation has been shown to aid in social anxiety. In these sessions, participants can rehearse social situations or play different characters. Social exploration in a stress-free manner reduces anxiety felt in daily social interactions. 

Similarly, drama therapy can help to address trauma. Dramatherapy offers a unique way to explore emotions through roleplay, storytelling, or improvisation. These activities provide distance between the individual and the traumatic experience. Distancing helps people to reflect and explore feelings in a safe and supported way.  

The benefits of drama therapy are extensive. The multifaceted nature of this therapy means that the intervention lends itself to helping a variety of issues. We’re yet to discover the full neurological effects of drama therapy. But, early indications look bright for ‘theatre as therapy’! 

Benefits Of Art Therapy For People With Autism 🖌️🎨

Ashleigh Willis is a final year Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow. Her research investigates the genetic and environmental contributors to mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions. Ashleigh has built research collaborations with McGill University and received specialist training at the Centre for Neuroscience at Montreal General Hospital, McGill University Health Centre. She is also an active member of the Society for Neuroscience. Ashleigh holds an Honours in Psychology, an MRes in Neuroscience, and is fascinated by the neuronal circuits which make us who we are. Ashleigh is passionate about providing a deeper understanding of mental health conditions and sharing an accurate and de-stigmatizing message through talks for organizations such as TEDx, Pint of Science, and the Scottish Funding Council

You can follow Ashleigh on her Youtube channel here

References 

  1. D’Amico, M., Lalonde, C., & Snow, S. (2015, January). Evaluating the efficacy of drama therapy in teaching social skills to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Drama Therapy Review, 1(1), 21-39. DOI:10.1386/dtr.1.1.21_1 
  2. Anari, A., Ddadsetan, P., & Sedghpour, B. S. (2009). The effectiveness of drama therapy on decreasing the symptoms of social anxiety disorder in children. European Psychiatry, 24(1). DOI:10.1016/S0924-9338(09)70747-3 
  3. http://www.researchautism.net/interventions/58/dramatherapy-and-autism/introduction 
  4. Social Competence Intervention Program (SCIP): A pilot study of a creative drama program for youth with social difficulties: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197455612001281?via%3Dihub 
  5. Improvement in Social Deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders Using a Theatre‐Based, Peer‐Mediated Intervention: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aur.1341 
  6. Brief report: theatre as therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20640592 
  7.  Benefits of drama therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder: a qualitative analysis of feedback from parents and teachers of clients attending Roundabout drama therapy sessions in schools: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02630672.2013.773131?journalCode=rdrt20 
  8. https://www.anxiety.org/social-anxiety-disorder-improvisation-drama-therapy 
  9. Results of the Use of Drama In Behavior Therapy: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02630672.1982.9689263 

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