Online Shakespeare methods for autistic young people during the Covid-19 pandemic

Autistic individuals and their carers have been amongst the worst affected groups in the global Covid-19 pandemic. They are in the highest risk group for the virus itself and stay-at-home and social distancing protocols have made access to much needed targeted therapies impossible for many families.

This case-study interrogates how innovative, theatre-based methodologies can be adapted to enable recovery from Covid-19 and build resilience among autistic young people in this uniquely challenging moment. It also reveals insights into how they are experiencing the pandemic.

Heartbeat – Creating Recovery brings together expertise and knowledge from a diverse background team of academics (arts/humanities/medicine), arts organisations including Peruvian theatre company La Plaza and British theatre company Flute Theatre, autistic people and their families, healthcare workers and civil society.

Flute has been developing a series of sensory drama games based on Shakespearean rhythms and language for 20 years. It has now introduced innovative ways of working online with autistic young people in the context of Covid-19.

These online participatory methodologies are now being adapted by Spanish-speaking theatre-makers in Peru. They are testing how autistic individuals and their families in Latin America can get support from arts organisations throughout the pandemic, with the aim of reducing social isolation.

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The same methodologies will be disseminated through observation, engagement and discussion with three other arts organisations in Latin America: Crear Vale la Pena in Argentina, Fundación Batuta in Colombia and Redes da Maré in Brazil. All three are members of a regional network of arts and mental health established by PPP’s project OLA-Building Resilience.

Teatro La Plaza is one of Latin America’s leading theatre organisations. It recently completed a two-year neuro-diversity-inclusive theatre project for actors and audiences that culminated in an internationally-acclaimed production of Hamlet. Since their theatre was closed in March 2020, due to the pandemic, online performances and virtual workshops have reached over 700,000 audience members. La Plaza is keen to continue previous work with neuro-diverse actors and audiences using Flute’s online performance techniques, to inform the development of arts-based strategies for disability-inclusive recovery.

One such technique developed by Flute is the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a series of sensory drama games based on Shakespearean rhythms and language, created by Kelly Hunter MBE, offering autistic people an opportunity to express themselves.

This project explores how a shift to digital working can extend the reach and impact of creative work with autistic individuals and their families in Latin America and open up new ways of working with neuro-diverse communities during and beyond the pandemic.

Methodologies will be publicly available, at low-cost, in English/Spanish/Portuguese, allowing for the learning to be scaled, built on and further adapted to support autistic people and their families.

Research team: PI: Professor Paul Heritage,  Drama QMUL and People’s Palace Projects Artistic Director and Francisco Diez Canseco doing consultancy. He leads CRONICAS, a centre for chronic diseases at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia.

Arts sector partners:  Flute Theatre, UK and Teatro La Plaza, Peru

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UKRI/AHRC Urgency Covid 19 Innovation grants.