Imagining Autism was initiated as a collaboration between the disciplines of drama and psychology that sought to address the differences in communication, social interaction and imagination in autistic children. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2011-2014) and based at the University of Kent, Imagining Autism began as a collaboration between the School of Arts, the Tizard Centre, the School of Psychology and the Gulbenkian Theatre. The project has since developed into researching and celebrating autistic creativity and imagination as a source of well being and learning, and establishing a substantial public engagement programme.
Pilot Project 2010
The origins of the project were the initiative of two drama lecturers (Nicola Shaughnessy and Melissa Trimingham), both of whom have autistic children. Their personal experience of using play-based approaches at home led to conversations with psychologists on the potential of drama as a research tool for working with autistic children. In 2010, they began working in a local special school (St Nicholas, Canterbury) with seed funding from Kent “Ideas factory” to run interactive drama workshops using puppetry and play to engage with autistic children, many of whom had minimal language. The development of the “pod”, a tent-like structure containing a series of themed multi-sensory scenic environments emerged in the context of a classroom environment. Having received Kent’s Innovative Project of the Year award (2011), the researchers successfully applied to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a 3-year programme to develop the work in local schools and to evaluate the effectiveness of the methods.
Imagining Autism, AHRC, 2011-2014
The original team for the project were Professor Nicola Shaughnessy (Principal Investigator), Dr Melissa Trimingham (Drama), Professor Julie Beadle-Brown (Tizard Centre) and Professor David Wilkinson (Psychology).
During Autumn 2011, the project team (performers, documenter, technician) created the materials for a series of participatory, immersive installations as environments for performance research.
From January to December 2012, the project team worked with autistic children aged 7-11 in three special Schools across Kent:
- Spring 2012: St Nicholas School, Canterbury
- Summer 2012: Laleham Gap, Broadstairs
- Autumn 2012: Helen Allison School, Meopham
During this period psychologists also worked with the children to evaluate their responses using mixed methods.
Participants were 22 children aged 7-12. Working with two small groups in each school (4-5 children) the team ran 10 weekly 45 minute workshops spending one term in each school. Each participant experienced 10 sessions. The portable pod was developed as an immersive environment with five themed settings rotating throughout the term (Forest, Underwater, Arctic, Outer Space, Under the City).
The evaluation by psychologists produced evidence that the drama workshops produced statistically significant changes in key areas.
At the immediate follow-up, all 22 children improved on at least one measure. Of the 6 who improved on ADOS social interaction scores, 5 also improved on three or more other measures. Among the other measures, the most significant changes were seen in the number of facial expressions the children recognised. 4 out of 6 children maintained the changes in social interaction on the ADOS at 3 months post-intervention with 3 showing maintenance at 9 months. All children maintained or showed increased changes in emotion recognition at follow up – between 5 months and 1 year after post-intervention. The majority of children maintained these improvements at follow-up (between 5 and 12 months post-intervention).”