We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.


Date: 18/12/2012

Drama-based activities may play a key role in helping autistic children's development has reported preliminary success. Imagining Autism, a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), involves undertaking a series of immersive, play-based methods and improvisation, puppetry, physical performance and interactive digital technologies with autistic children in multisensory environments - portable tent like structures.

The project is a collaboration between staff from the University of Kent's School of Arts, School of Psychology and Tizard Centre, as well as support from the University's Gulbenkian Theatre. Imagining Autism shared some of its findings at a dedicated event to mark the end of the practical phase of interventions. The event held on last week at the Helen Allison School, one of three special schools in Kent involved in the project, the event was attended by over 50 invited guests, including teachers and families associated with the work, as well as professionals from health, education and the arts.

The event enabled the research team to demonstrate the methods used during the research, including an experience of ‘Outer Space’, one of the five sensory environments designed for the project. The environments allow the children to encounter a range of stimuli and respond to triggers, created through lighting, sound or physical action. Using performers in each of the environments, the work is designed to promote communication, socialization, playful interaction and creative engagement, encouraging participants to find new ways of connecting with the world around them. Researchers from the project are investigating whether this experience enhances language, social interaction, empathy and imagination, three areas identified as deficits in autism.

Principal researcher, Nicola Shaughnessy, said: The practical work has been incredibly exciting and has led to some unexpected outcomes such as insights into the unusual imagination, perception and humour in autism. As a collaboration between arts and science, we are also developing new ways of working across subject areas as well as new approaches to training for work of this kind.

We have been overwhelmed by the positive responses we've had to the work from schools and families and it is the breakthrough moments with the individual children which make this project so rewarding.

The event also featured presentations from the research team, led by Professor Nicola Shaughnessy and Dr Melissa Trimingham from the University's School of Arts, who explained the practical methods and processes involved, whilst Dr Julie Beadle-Brown of Kent's Tizard Centre spoke about the evaluation measures being used.

Presentations from Victoria Scott, an educational psychologist based at the Helen Allison School, reported her perceptions of the impact of the project and a testimonial from a parent whose child has been participating was also featured. The parent spoke about the transformation she has seen in her child's behaviour and communication since the interventions started, describing it as “a little miracle”.

The research will now enter its final phase where results will be analysed by Dr Julie Beadle-Brown and Dr David Wilkinson from the University's School of Psychology to see if the practical interventions have made a difference to the children through a range of tests undertaken before and after the practical phase.

The project's innovative methods, which differ from more conventional skills-based and behavioural approaches, have attracted international interest resulting in Kent’s drama researchers undertaking presentations in the USA. The project will also be featured at the National Autistic Society's annual conference in the UK in March.

It is hoped that the results from the research could lead to a full-scale trial and may also prompt changes in approaches to other communication disorders in children.

For more information on the project, visit www.imaginingautism.org.

Notes to editors

For further information, please contact:

Danielle Moore-Chick, AHRC: 01793 416021 d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk

Katie Scoggins, University of Kent: 01227 823100/823581 K.Scoggins@kent.ac.uk

  • The Tizard Centre is one of the leading UK academic groups working in learning disability and community care. The Centre is part of the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent's Canterbury campus.
  • The University of Kent was established at Canterbury in 1965 and has now become known as the UK's European university, with students in Brussels and Paris as well as at its other Kent campuses at Medway and Tonbridge.
    It has nearly 20,000 students, of which around 17,000 are undergraduates and approaching 3,000 are postgraduates.
    The University has consistently been rated by its own students as one of the best universities in the UK for the quality of its teaching and academic provision. In the 2012 National Student Survey, Kent placed third out of all publicly-funded multi-faculty universities in the UK for overall student satisfaction. In the 2013 Guardian University Guide, Kent achieved a ranking of 22nd, and was placed 28th in the Sunday Times League Table 2013.
    In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the University was placed 24th out of 159 participating institutions in the UK for its world-leading research, while 97% of its academic staff work in schools or centres where the research is rated as either internationally or nationally excellent.
    In 2008, the University was awarded The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for the work of its Kent Law Clinic.
    The University's strong European impact is reinforced by long-standing partnerships with more than 100 universities in Europe and it is the only UK university to have specialist postgraduate centres in Brussels and Paris. The University has also developed relationships with many leading universities outside Europe and in 2010 launched a new initiative to offer more scholarships to students from Hong Kong and China.
    The University is a major economic force in the South East, supporting innovation and enterprise across the region. It is worth £0.6 billion to the economy of the South East, with its students contributing £211 million to that total. It also supports directly or indirectly almost 6,800 jobs in the South East. 
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.


Return to news list