Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) SENSE Theatre enriches performances with Musical Talent from Artist on the Autism Spectrum

June 17, 2019

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) investigator Blythe Corbett and participants of the Winter 2019 SENSE Theatre program recently performed the original musical "The Makeover" to appreciative audiences. Their performances were the culmination of practice and hard work put in by young actors with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), typically developing peer actors, and, new this year, a new musician who is also on the spectrum.

SENSE Theatre is a unique intervention research program that brings together theatre techniques and peer actors to enhance social competence in children and adolescents with ASD. Corbett, who serves as professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Psychology, created SENSE Theatre in 2009 by combining her extensive background in the performing arts with her research on social functioning and stress as it affects adolescents on the autism spectrum. Previous randomized control trials (RCT) have shown that children who receive the treatment demonstrate significant gains in social cognition, social interaction with peers, and reduced anxiety.

SENSE Theatre has a large research component, but coordinators also know it's also about dedication, creativity, and fun. Corbett and her research team members have worked closely with multiple cohorts of young actors over the years, writing and scoring original musicals and letting them bring the words and music to life for a supportive audience of family, friends, and theatre-goers. Participants play fun theatre games and work on character development, improvisation, and singing during rehearsal and perform musicals written to highlight themes relevant for persons with disabilities, such as belonging, acceptance, and making friends.

"SENSE Theatre is all about inclusion and sharing our unique talents both on and off the stage," said Corbett.

Before each session begins, Corbett and her longtime creative team work together to bring their original plays from the page to the stage. This year, she recruited accompanist Drew Basham to play piano during performances. In addition to being a talented 20-year-old award-winning musician and emerging songwriter, Basham also has autism.

"It was a delight to have Drew in the program," Corbett said. "This is the first time that our accompanist has ASD, and it has added another inclusive and supportive element to SENSE Theatre." 

Initially diagnosed at 2 years of age, Basham did not speak until he was 4, despite comprehensive treatment. But it was as he aged that his emerging talents began to make themselves known.

"My talent for being able to play piano by ear was discovered when I was 9 and a half years old. One day I was playing the song 'Clair de Lune' by Debussy on the keyboard," said Basham. "It wasn't until I was in middle school that I really started working on my musical skills and getting involved in school performances. My music teacher recommended that I audition for the precollege scholarship program at Vanderbilt Blair School of Music. I was accepted and went on to attend the program until I graduated high school.

"I learned technique and some beginning music reading but still played mainly by ear when my time there was over," he continued. "I am currently taking private lessons and working on reading music and lots of practicing. I am continuously expanding my repertoire."

Most recently, he received the Borderless Arts 2018 Young Soloist and Fan Favorite Awards. 

The Winter 2019 production of "The Makeover" was directed by University School of Nashville (USN) theatre director Lily Palmer and included a cast of 13 youth with ASD paired with an equal number of USN and community high school actors. Basham enjoyed the group collaboration as they brought "The Makeover" to life.

"I really enjoyed working with everyone on the creative team. It was an awesome experience and I look forward to the opportunity to do it again in the future," he said. "It gave me the chance to contribute to a play where people on the spectrum are all working toward the same goal in presenting a play with a great message. I love being a part of something that lets people see us all for our abilities and not our disabilities."

Emelyne Bingham, VKC member and senior lecturer at the Blair School of Music, provided the musical arrangement for "The Makeover" and worked with Basham to prepare songs for the show. Bingham, who is also on the autism spectrum, generally works with musicians who can sight-read sheet music, yet, when working together, she and Basham seemed to share a unique unspoken language. 

"It was really fun to work with Drew, because his love of music is so infectious," said Bingham. 

Currently, Blythe Corbett and research colleagues have just completed the first of a four-year multisite randomized control trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH114906) in which 240 youth with ASD will receive either SENSE Theatre or an active control condition implemented at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, and Stony Brook University. 

"The primary goal of the current study is to determine if the intervention can be implemented with fidelity at other university centers and if findings will be replicated when compared to another intervention for youth with ASD," said Corbett.  As part of that pursuit, the SENSE team is currently enrolling for the next cohort of youth with ASD between 10 to 16 years of age randomized to SENSE Theatre or Tackling Teenage. Both interventions are provided at no cost, but do require completion of study visits before and after the treatment.

For more information about SENSE Theatre, visit the SENSE Lab website or contact senselab@vumc.org, (615) 513-9562.

Elizabeth Turner is associate program manager for VKC Communications.