Shakespeare and Autism

Through collaboration between The Ohio State University Nisonger Center & the Wexner Medical Center, The Ohio State University Department of Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, a unique opportunity has been created to study an exciting new intervention. The Hunter Heartbeat Method, created by Kelly Hunter of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has been used with children with autism spectrum disorders for the past 20 years. Over the years, teaching strategies and intervention methods have been refined and have been anecdotally effective in improving social and communication skills with children of all ages and across the autism spectrum.

The Hunter Heartbeat Method

The Hunter Heartbeat Method is a Shakespearian based theater intervention developed by Kelly Hunter of the Royal ShakespeareCompany. The Hunter Heartbeat method is based around the rhythm of iambic pentameter and the sound of the heartbeat. In this intervention, games based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest are introduced to the children allowing them to progress through the basic plot of the work while emphasizing the themes of the eyes, the mind and the heart. Games target skills such as eye contact, turn taking, facial emotion recognition and production, imitation, improvisation, basic play, humor, and communication in a fun and playful manner. Children learn the games while seated in a large group circle through imitation and observation rather than explicit instruction, have an opportunity to play the games one on one with an actor, and then have an opportunity to enter the middle of the circle and show their interpretation of the game to their peers. The Hunter Heartbeat method emphasized the low actor to child ratio so children receive individual attention, feedback, and interaction as they play the games and grow and develop core social skills and communication.

Video of Hunter Heartbeat Method – a typical session:

Pilot Study Results Published

The pilot investigation evaluated the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a drama-based social skills intervention designed to impact core deficits of autism including deficits in social interaction, pragmatic language, and facial-emotion recognition. Fourteen children with autism were recruited to participate in the intervention. Post-test evaluations indicated that the participants showed significant improvement in social skills and communication as measured by the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale, Second Edition and in pragmatic language as measured by the Test of Pragmatic Language, Second Edition. Additionally, a number of participants who showed poor facial emotion recognition prior to starting the intervention showed substantial gains in facial emotion recognition as measured by the PENN Facial Emotion Recognition Task. These preliminary results need to be replicated with more participants and within a more tightly controlled study design, however, these findings indicate that the Hunter Heartbeat Method shows promise in improving the social and communicative functioning of individuals with autism in a play-based intervention high in ecological validity deliverable in a community setting.

Published in: Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities


  • OSU Department of Theatre, Lesley Ferris, PhD; Kevin McClatchy, MFA
  • Flute Theatre, Kelly Hunter
  • The Ohio State University Nisonger Center, Marc J. Tassé, PhD; Maggie Mehling, MA

For more information please contact Marc J. Tassé, PhD at

Related Links

Shakespeare and Autism Project at The Ohio State University Department of Theatre

BigTen Network: BTN LiveBIG: Kids with autism get help from Buckeyes and The Bard

Shakespeare and Autism ColumbusPublic for AAIDD 2014 [PDF]