Tempest Tossed: Shakespeare and Autism

Play

Shakespeare wasn’t writing for an autistic audience, but researchers and thespians at Ohio State University are learning about how his plays can be adapted to both engage and edify people who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Wexner Center for the Arts and WOSU@COSI this week present Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” adapted for audiences with autism. For more information, click here.

Kelly Hunter, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of “The Tempest,” developed the Hunter-Heartbeat method. This therapy uses the rhythm of Shakespeare’s prose to connect with the audience, focusing on the iambic pentameter like a heartbeat.

“The rhythm of the language, which is where the title of the Hunter-Heartbeat method comes from, is written in the rhythm of a heartbeat,” Hunter said. “The iambic pentameter is in the rhythm of a heartbeat and, arguably, the first sound we hear in the womb before were born. So we sit in a circle to being the play, and when the children come they have this calming experience of making the sound of a heartbeat.”

She said that Shakespeare’s words also emotionally motivate the audience through interactive games.

“The games that we play in the show are taken from moments … where Shakespeare is really describing how it feels to be alive,” Hunter said. “Children with autism find it very difficult to express their feelings. So the work is really a distillation of what Shakespeare is exploring, which encompasses the idea of making eye contact, and expressing feelings.”

Robin Post directs the Shakespeare and Autism program at Ohio State University. She said they are studying this method and that although the results aren’t final, some appear promising.

“It’s a longitudinal, 3-year-long research project,” Post said. “We’re waiting to find the results, but we have some preliminary results that are really promising. We’re looking to see whether Kelly’s work, the Hunter Heartbeat Method can affect change to the core features of autism.”

Currently 1 in 68 children in the US are diagnosed with autism, a rate that has increased 30 percent from 1 in 88 two years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Event

Wexner Center for the Arts presents an interactive adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, July 16-20.

 Guests:

  • Jeff Siegel, coordinator of the Aspirations autism program at Ohio State
  • Carolyn Valek, mom of child with autism
  • Scott Valek, participant in Aspirations autism program
  • Kelly Hunter, director of The Tempest, adapted for audiences with autism
  • Robin Post, director of the Shakespeare and Autism program at Ohio State

Join The Conversation