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Volume 28, Number 1
January/February 2012

Using Theater to Teach Social Skills

Researchers document improvements for children with autism


Children practice showing and recognizing emotions like anger while playing a theater game called Bamboozle.

Back in 2003, Matthew D. Lerner was a recent college graduate working as a counselor at a therapeutic summer camp in Massachusetts. His job was to teach the basic rules of social pragmatics to students on the autism spectrum. But the going was tough. Many of the adolescents objected to the rote training, which began with a lesson to teach a particular skill (such as how to start a conversation) and continued with specific instructions on how to practice that skill. Some got anxious. Others got aggressive. The staff was at wits’ end.

One day, Lerner, who had some acting experience, just threw out what seemed like an idea born of desperation: “What if we try some theater games?” The program leader agreed to let him try, so he brought in a couple actor friends and did some basic theater exercises with the campers. In a game called Gibberish,for example, one student was assigned to sell an item to the group, using only nonsensical language. Another student played the “translator” and tried to interpret what the first student was saying. In this game, there is no script, and the activity can get wildly inventive and hilarious. The students couldn’t get enough of it.

“For the first time that summer—and it was a tough summer—all of the kids who had been aggressive with each other got along,” Lerner recalls. “In the context of the theater games, they began using some socially appropriate skills.” These social skills included the little niceties often taken for granted in most human interactions—like saying hello, answering questions, and looking people in the eye. The students ultimately wrote a play and performed it for their parents at the end of the session.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

M. Lerner, A. Mikami, and K. Levine. “Socio-Dramatic Affective-Relational Intervention for Adolescents with Asperger Syndrome & High-Functioning Autism: Pilot Study.” Autism 15, no. 1 (2011), 21–42. Available online at

T. Goldstein and E. Winner. “Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind.” Journal of Cognition and Development, forthcoming.

B. Corbett, J. Gunther, D. Comins, J. Price, N. Ryan, D. Simon, C. Schupp, and T. Rios. “Brief Report: Theatre as Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41, no. 4 (2010), 505–511.

L. Guli, A. Wilkinson, M. Semrud-Clikeman. Social Competence Intervention Program: A Drama-Based Intervention for Youth on the Autism Spectrum. Champaign, IL: Research Press, 2008.