Appalachian’s Theatre and Therapy Project

Pilot study shows promise in improving speech/language skills for young people with autism and intellectual disabilities

An interprofessional, exploratory pilot study by faculty members in the departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Theatre and Dance shows promise in improving the speech, language and social skills of adolescents and young adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. It also helped boost their self-confidence.

Appalachian State University’s Dr. Angela Losardo and Dr. Derek Davidson recently spent 20 weeks examining the efficacy of theatre as a therapeutic intervention for 15- to 25-year-olds with moderate to severe communication impairments, thanks to a grant from the Appalachian’s University Research Council (URC) and a research stipend from the Beaver College of Health Sciences.

Their study, titled the Theatre and Therapy Project, paired Appalachian students from each discipline with one of six participants. Everyone involved met weekly for two hours to work on specific communication goals by acting short scenes from their favorite movies. The goals were set in consultation with the participants and their families, and video recordings of several sessions helped document progress.

The activity-based intervention culminated in a drama presentation on campus in November titled “Stages of Success: The Power of Performance” starring six research participants, with casting and language support from Appalachian students.

The idea for such a study came to Losardo after seeing a friend’s adult son with Down syndrome present scenes from “Beauty and the Beast” at a local community center after taking drama classes. He showed remarkable improvement in his speech and social skills since taking the classes.

“He used to communicate much differently – head down, one word answers to questions, often unintelligible,” Losardo said about previous interactions with him. “When I saw him this time, he spoke with confidence and in complete sentences! I told my friend how amazed I was at how his communication had improved.”

Davidson’s and her study has shown similar results. Among the six participants, “we found improvements in speech and articulation, volume and intonation, their ability to work in groups and use of complete sentences, making eye contact and making friends,” Losardo said. They also improved in reading comprehension and cognitive skills, she said.

Davidson said the opportunity to work with a marginalized population was beneficial for all involved. “The idea that theatre can make us better people has been around as long as theater has been around,” he told audience members at the performance. He added, “Theatre really is about community, and the greatest product of this pilot project has been the development of community. These young people have made gains in their speech and language abilities, but they’ve also joined a family.”

For Appalachian students, Losardo said students in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders learned new ways of infusing fun with therapy, while expanding their skills working with diverse populations. Davidson said students in the Department of Theatre and Dance strengthened their improvisational skills, which are much needed by teachers who also work with diverse populations.

Both Losardo and Davidson want their research to continue. Already plans are being made for similar activities in 2017, perhaps expanding the Appalachian majors involved and finding larger space in which to rehearse. Davidson said he’d like to see collaboration with the local non-profit In/Visible Theatre, which often presents the work of underrepresented voices.

“I really believe in the power of this,” Davidson said of the pilot study.

  • ‘Stages of Success’


    [GFX: Photo slideshow]

    Voice Over: In 2016, Appalachian State University conducted a pilot research study between theater, and communication sciences and disorders. The research shows promise in improving the speech, language and social skills of young people with autism and intellectual disabilities. Their study, titled the Theatre and Therapy Project, culminated in a campus presentation called “Stages of Success: The Power of Performance.” It starred six participants, with casting and language support from Appalachian students.

    [GFX: “Shrek” starring Tyler S. and Connor]

    Tyler S./Prince Charming: [singing] Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet…me!

    Connor/Shrek: Last I checked this wasn’t a musical, pretty boy.

    Tyler S./Prince Charming: Well fine! No one around here appreciates talent anymore! Alright, ogre! You fell right into my *COUGH…into my *COUGH…my trap! Jumping giants this pixie dust is everywhere!

    Emma/Fiona: Prince Charming! What are you doing here?

    Connor/Shrek: I’m not surprised in the slightest. Who else would set up such a simple trap?

    [GFX: “The Angry Birds Movie” starring Keith

    Rachel/Blue Jane: My wings re so tired from flying so fast! Are your wings tired?

    Keith/Chuck: Yeah, I just want to sit down.

    Rachel/Blue Jane: Me too, ugh…

    Sydney/Matilda: Okay, settle down everyone, and welcome to anger management class.

    [laughter from audience]

    Rachel/Blue Jane: When is the boom?

    Chuck/Keith: Boom!

    Cody/Red: Boom?!

    Sydney/Matilda: No boom here. Now breathe.

    Blue: BOOM!

    Cody/Red: I don’t find that funny!

    Keith/Chuck: One time I went to the beach, and the bird went boom.

    [GFX: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” starring Xander]

    Krys/Doc: What is it?

    Xander/Grumpy: Why it’s a girl!

    Krys/Doc: She is like an angel.

    Xander/Grumpy: Angel, ha! She’s a girl.

    Krys/Doc: All girls are full of poison.

    Xander/Grumpy: They have wicked ways.

    Krys/Doc: Shhh! Not so loud. You’ll wake her up.

    Xander/Grumpy: She has to wake up. She does not belong here.

    Krys/Doc: Shhh! She’s moving!

    Xander/Grumpy: What do we do?

    Krys/Doc: Hide!

    [GFX: “101 Dalmatians” starring Mieszko]

    Grace/Cruella: I’ve got not time to answer. I’m telling you, it’s got to be done tonight. Do you understand? Tonight!

    Mieszko/Horace: But they ain’t big enough!

    Megan/Jasper: You couldn’t get off a dozen coats out of the old caboodle.

    Grace/Cruella: Then we’ll settle for half a dozen. We can’t wait! The police are everywhere. I want the job done tonight.

    Mieszko/Horace: How are we going to do it?

    Grace/Cruella: Any way you like. Poison them. Drown them. Bash them in the head. You got any chloroform?

    Megan/Jasper: Not a drop.

    Mieszko/Horace: And no ether, either.

    Megan/Jasper: Either [pronounced eye-ther]

    [GFX: “Peter Pan” starring Tyler L.]

    Tyler L./Mr. Darling: Pan, pirate, poppycock!

    Children together: Oh no, father. Father have you ever– You don’t understand.

    Tyler L./Mr. Darling: Absolute poppycock! And let me tell you, this ridiculous…

    Emily/Mrs. Darling: Now, George.

    Tyler L./Mr. Darling: Now, George. Now George. Well, now George will have his say!

    Emily/Mrs. Darling: Please, dear.

    Tyler L./Mr. Darling: Mary, the child’s growing up. It’s high time she had a room of her own.

    Chelsea/Wendy: Father!

    Emily/Mrs. Darling: George!

    Hayley/Michael: No!

    Beth/John: What?

    Tyler L./Mr. Darling: I mean it! Young lady, this is your last night in the nursery! And that’s my last word on the matter! [gasps and yells as he trips]

    [applause from audience]

    [GFX: Images and video courtesy of the Theatre and Therapy Project. Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Department of Theatre and Dance.]

    Watch segments of “Stages of Success: The Power of Performance,” presented by participants in a research study on the use of theatre as therapy for 15- to 25-year-olds with moderate to severe communication impairments.