Children with autism can see big gains in socialization, communication and other skills by learning to perform on stage, researchers say.

Kids on the spectrum who participated in a 10-week, 40-hour theater program saw an increase in everyday skills like communication and the ability to recognize faces as compared to children with autism who did not attend the lessons, according to findings published in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

For the study, researchers looked at 30 children with autism ages 8 to 14. Seventeen of the kids were randomly assigned to participate in the theater-based intervention while the others did not.

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The program included theatrical games, role-playing and other drama exercises and ultimately focused on preparing for a 45-minute play, which participants performed after completing the intervention. The children with autism worked with typically-developing peers who were trained to help facilitate the activities and perform alongside them.

Kids with autism who attended the theater sessions were also asked to practice their new skills for 15 minutes daily by watching a series of web videos highlighting the target behaviors, role-playing and songs they were working on in the intervention.

At the end of the program, children who participated were more likely to engage in group play, the study found, and parents reported far greater gains in social communication as compared to children with autism who did not attend the sessions. The positive changes persisted two months after program completion, researchers said.

Kids who took part in the intervention also showed greater facial recognition skills and theory of mind abilities as compared to those in the control group, the study found.

Researchers said the findings suggest that theater could be a good tool for enhancing social skills in kids on the spectrum. What’s more, they said the program shows the benefit that typically-developing peers can offer in administering autism intervention.

“Peers can be transformative in their ability to reach and teach children a variety of fundamental social skills,” said Blythe Corbett, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who led the study. “And, combined with acting techniques that enhance our ability and motivation to communicate with others, the data suggests we may be setting the stage for lasting changes in how our children with autism perceive and interact with the social world.”

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