UCL Grand Challenges


Expanding the social self through theatre in adolescents with autism: a pilot study

This GC funded activity was a collaborative project between Jamie Ward and Antonia Hamilton. It is part of the Adolescent Lives initiative from the Grand Challenges.

Performers in a circle seen from above

16 May 2018


Grant: Grand Challenges Special Initiatives
Part of the Adolescent Lives Initiative
Year awarded: 2017-18
Amount awarded: £6,503


  • Jamie Ward, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Brain Sciences
  • Antonia Hamilton,Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, Brain Sciences

External partners 

  • Kelly Hunter (Director, Flute Theatre)

Dr Jamie A. Ward, UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, worked with colleagues at Goldsmiths and the Flute Theatre company on the project, 'Expanding the social self through theatre in adolescents with autism'. 

The goal of the pilot study was to measure social engagement in autistic adolescents through a unique combination of theatre and wearable sensing. The work is based on recent evidence pointing to theatre as a powerful way for young people with autism to engage in new social interactions.

The company of actors that make up Flute theatre have, over the last decade, developed an approach to developing theatrical performances of Shakespeare's plays for autistic children that encourage engagement. But how can this be measured? Evidence from psychology suggests that levels of social engagement might be measured using interpersonal synchrony of people's body movements.

With this as the baseline, they set about recording wearable sensor data from a troupe of 6 actors and 12 children during a week of performances at London's Bridge Theatre. 

Preliminary findings indicate that wrist-worn motion sensors, worn by interacting children and actors, reveal a high-level of detail on their interpersonal synchrony.

This in turn provided strong evidence for levels of engagement. Some of the data uncovered unexpected moments of engagement between autistic children -- moments that would otherwise be missed if studying using eye alone. 

Outputs and Impacts

The project found that by visualising each child’s engagement over the course of performance, it is possible to highlight subtle moments of social coordination that might otherwise be lost when reviewing video footage alone.

This is important because it points the way to a new method for people who work with autistic children to be able to monitor the development of those in their care and to adapt their therapeutic activities accordingly. 

PDF icon Project pre-print journal paper