Updated: Aug 14, 2022
In honor of World Autism Awareness Month, let us introduce you to the Hunter Heartbeat Method - a type of drama therapy that uses Shakespearean text to help children with autism!
Drama therapy falls under the category of creative therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, creative therapy can improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, enhance social skills, build emotional strength, encourage insight into situations that are causing problems, increase self-awareness, and more. Can you name some other types of creative therapy? Answers are below!
Answers: Music therapy (ex: discussing lyrics, musical improvisation), Dance therapy, Poetry therapy (reading, writing), Art therapy (ex: painting, drawing)
Fun Fact: Creative Therapy has helped to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, trauma, stress, head injuries, substance abuse issues, dementia, mental health conditions, and more!
Awesome! But what EXACTLY is drama therapy?
The simple, one-sentence answer:
Any use of drama and/or theatrical practice to achieve therapeutic goal(s).
Here are the more poetically inspirational two paragraphs you’ll find on the website of the NADTA:
“Drama therapy is an embodied practice that is active and experiential. This approach can provide the context for participants to tell their stories, set goals and solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis. Through drama, the depth and breadth of inner experience can be actively explored and interpersonal relationship skills can be enhanced.
Drama Therapy is an active, experiential approach to facilitating change. Through storytelling, projective play, purposeful improvisation, and performance, participants are invited to rehearse desired behaviors, practice being in relationship, expand and find flexibility between life roles, and perform the change they wish to be and see in the world.”
Hunter Heartbeat Method
The Hunter Heartbeat Method uses William Shakespeare’s texts in theatre games to encourage autistic children to better their communication and social skills.
What is Autism
According to Autism Open Access, autism is a neurological disorder which may cause problems that include difficulty displaying emotions, starting and maintaining friendships, and speaking clearly. Separated into three categories by severity, autism has varying degrees of influence on its patients. For example, those in the highest level of severity have much more difficulty interacting socially and developing relationships than someone who has the mildest level of autism.
In 2018, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated about one in every fifty-nine children in the United States have some level of autism.
How the Method Began
Kelly Hunter, an actress and inventor of the Hunter Heartbeat Method, designed it using William Shakespeare’s writings. Why Shakespeare’s? Because they are written mostly in iambic pentameter - meaning each line consists of five two-syllable beats. This rhythm resembles that of a heart beating… more on this later!
Kelly Hunter was able to initiate the trial workshops in 2010 thanks to the partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company (where she acted) and Ohio State University. During these one hour sessions, autistic children 10-13 years old and their instructors (actors) played theatre games based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” (You can read about the specific games/exercises in her book: Shakespeare's Heartbeat: Drama Games for Children With Autism.) With a whopping two to three children- per- actor ratio, the individual attention became an essential aspect of the approach.
Overview of a Workshop Day
At the beginning of each workshop, both the actors and children repeat “Hel-lo” to the rhythm of a heartbeat while making eye contact with fellow participants. By doing this, the children not only practice eye contact but are also soothed by the rhythm. Now calm and focused, they are ready to play! While the games vary, they each require the children to actively practice exhibiting human emotion through the vibrant characters of Shakespeare’s plays. Furthermore, they learn to understand the reactions and emotions of those around them. At the end before leaving, the actors and children chant “Good-bye.”
To watch a demonstration of this chanting, click the button below!
For a quick peek into the classroom, click the button below!
The results of the Hunter Heartbeat Method have proven exceptionally positive. The autistic children who attended the workshops have shown increased emotional exhibition and understanding, more social communication, and other improvements. According to American Theatre, “...noticed that the children were more social in the program, at school, and at home. For example, parents noted that their children were actively seeking new friendships at school and sustaining conversations with people they didn’t know.” One mother of a workshop participant noted, “[My son] was engaged and soaking up the energy and even participated as part of a group and that is uncommon.”
To review the Pilot Study Report, click the button below!
Interested in learning more about the Hunter Heartbeat Method? We’ve got you covered! Be sure to check out the following resources: (ADD PICS AND LINKS)
Kelly Hunter’s book - covers the exercises used in her Method
Article (with videos): Flute Theatre
Video #1: Kelly Hunter Outlines Her Work
Video #2: Kelly Hunter Interview
Video #3: Sydney Centre for Creative Change - Kelly Hunter Interview
Article #1: Cambridge University Press
Article #2: Ohio State University Article
Written by Mariela Rivero
Edited by Laura Yumi Snell
Broad and High. (2014). Shakespeare and Autism. YouTube.
Considine, Allison. “The Brain on the Bard: How Shakespeare Impacts Children With Autism.”
AMERICAN THEATRE, 12 Sept. 2018.
MacLellan, Lila. “Autistic Kids Are Thriving in ‘Shakespearean Therapy.’” Quartz, Quartz, 18 Oct. 2016.
Unknown. “Autism Facts and Figures.” Autism Speaks, Autism Speaks.
Unknown. “Autism-Open Access.” Autism Open Access, vol. 7, no. 5, ser. 1000222, 2017. 1000222, doi:10.4172/2165-7890.
Unknown. “Treatment | Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) | NCBDDD | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,