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Stage acting therapy helps autism disorder stress

December 22, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
For many parents who have kids on the autism spectrum, communication and interaction with others usually present the biggest problems. But now a new program is changing how we look at autism by putting kids in the spotlight.

As a carefree 10-year-old, Kerrick Coble doesn't hold back. But he wasn't always that way. When Kerrick was 2, the Cobles started noticing something was different about him.

"Like a lot of kids, you just naturally give them something, they go play, but with Kerrick there was never really, 'I'm just going to go play,'" said Kurt Coble, Kerrick's father.

At 3 years old, Kerrick was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD or PDDNOS, Not Other Specified), a mild form of autism.

Now researchers at Vanderbilt University are using the theater to help improve the lives of kids diagnosed with the disorder, from mild to severe.

"We really want to understand whether these social experiences are really stressful for some of our children," said Dr. Blythe Corbett, a clinical neurologist at the University of California-Davis.

Corbett looks at social and communication skills before, during and after the camp and examines stress levels by measuring cortisol, one of the primary stress hormones.

In three different studies, Corbett found that acting improved the way kids expressed themselves and they also showed lower stress levels.

"The cortisol level was actually quite high when they first arrived on the first day of rehearsal. By the end of the rehearsal, it actually went down quite a bit," said Corbett.

So far, Kerrick's been in two plays, even landing the lead role in his last performance.

"I've seen a big difference in just his initiating skills," said Kerrick's mother.

The treatment is helping Kerrick's newfound skills take center stage.