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Acting With Autism

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DENVER (IVANHOE) - One in every 110 children is diagnosed with some level of autism. For many parents, this usually means problems with communication and little interest in interacting with others.

But now a new program is changing how we look at autism by putting kids in the spotlight.

As a carefree 10-year-old, Kerrick Coble doesn't hold back. But he wasn't always like this. When Kerrick was two the Cobles' started noticing something was different about him.

"With a lot of kids you would give them something and they would play but with Kerrick there was never a 'I'm just going to play," said Kurt Coble, Kerrick's dad.

At three, Kerrick was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder or PDDNOS, a mild form of autism. Now researchers at Vanderbilt University are using the theater to help improve the lives of kids diagnosed with the disorder, from mild to severe.

"We really want to understand whether these social experiences are really stressful for some of our children," explained Blythe Corbett, PhD, Assistant Professor, Director SENSE Theater Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

Doctor Blythe Corbett looks at social and communication skills before, during and after the camp and looks at stress levels by measuring one of the primary stress hormones, Cortisol.

In three different studies, Doctor Corbett found acting improved the way kids expressed themselves and they also showed lower stress levels.

"The Cortisol level was quite high when they first arrived the first day but after the rehearsal, it actually went down quite a bit," Doctor Corbett described.

So far, Kerrick's been in two plays, landing the lead role in his last performance.

"I've seen a big difference in his initiating skills," Michelle Coble, Kerrick's Mom, said.

For most people, Cortisol level production tends to be greater in the morning than at night, but Doctor Corbett's research found children with autism show higher Cortisol toward the end of the day, which was related to daily stress from changes experienced during the day.

RESEARCH SUMMARY

BACKGROUND: Autism is part of a group of developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that appear in early childhood - usually before age 3. It is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The exact causes remain unknown, but are an active area of research. There are probably combinations of factors that lead to autism, but genetic factors seem to be important. For example, identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins or siblings to both have autism. Similarly, language abnormalities are more common in relatives of autistic children. Chromosomal abnormalities and other nervous system (neurological) problems are also more common in families with autism. Other causes have been suspected, but not proven. They involve:

  • Diet
  • Digestive tract changes
  • Mercury poisoning
  • The body's inability to properly use vitamins and minerals
  • Vaccine sensitivity

The number of children diagnosed with autism appears to be rising. It's not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism, a real increase in the number of cases, or both. While there is no cure for autism, intensive, early treatment can make a big difference.

SYMPTOMS: Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common symptoms: fails to respond to name, poor eye contact, appears not to hear you at times, resists cuddling and holding, appears unaware of others' feelings, prefers playing alone - retreats into "own world", starts talking later than age 2, loses ability to say words or sentences, speaks with abnormal tone or rhythm - may use singsong voice or robot-like speech, may repeat words or phrases, but doesn't understand how to use them, performs repetitive movements, becomes disturbed at slightest change in routines or rituals, moves constantly, fascinated by parts of an object, sensitive to light, sound and touch, yet oblivious to pain. (www.mayoclinic.com)

SENSE THEATRE: "A Stage of Hope for Children with Autism," founded by Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., SENSE Theatre is a theatrical intervention research program designed to improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism. The research arises from Corbett's Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) lab where she focuses on social behavior, emotion perception and stress in autistic children. Corbett is a former professional actor and writer. The SENSE Theatre program allows her to bridge two worlds - art and science - to provide a unique therapeutic environment for children to learn how to think, feel and express in new and meaningful ways.

For More Information, Contact:

Craig Boerner
National News Director
Vanderbilt University
(615) 322-4747
craig.boerner@vanderbilt.edu

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