by Carol Brenner
At first glance you might think Shakespeare has little to offer a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, children with ASD struggle to express feelings, make eye contact and move their bodies through space with confidence. Often, they fall into rigid behavior patterns simply to survive and make sense of their topsy turvy world.
Enter Shakespeare with his rich imaginative language, steady rhythmic verse and expressive characters showing emotions bigger than life.
Shakespeare’s verse, known as iambic pentameter, provides the same rhythm as the human heartbeat, giving an experience of warmth and security. Shakespeare’s Heartbeat, written by UK actress and director Kelly Hunter, guides adults in leading children with ASD through a series of games based on two of Shakespeare’s favorite plays, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
During weekly classes children sit in a circle and gently tap out a heartbeat on their own chest. Once the steady rhythm of the Hunter Heartbeat Method (HHM) is established, the teacher says and repeats the word ‘Hel-lo’ with the beat while making eye contact with every child in the circle. This allows her to take a reading of each child while also helping the children settle.
Following this, each child is greeted one-by-one and encouraged to respond in kind. The game progresses to the children taking turns sitting in the center of the circle and greeting each person in the circle with a ‘Hel-lo.’ The heartbeat is maintained by the entire group throughout the exercise. If a child is non-verbal or resistant to participating, an adult can help by tapping the heartbeat on the child’s chest and saying the words for them. This tapping exercise is repeated at the end of the workshop with the word ‘Good-bye,’ providing closure and consistency for the child.
More games are introduced that allow the children to explore emotions like happy, sad, angry. For the word happy the children make a happy face while saying ‘Hello,’ always keeping the chosen expression in their face and voice. After the three initial faces have been established you can add fearful, surprised and disgusted. The games build one upon the other, and all games encourage the children to play and have fun, to let go and explore.