Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by primary impairment in social competence. Effects of current psychosocial interventions often fail to maintain or generalize and few employ rigorous experimental methods. Our treatment, SENSE Theatre, combines several well-documented, effective behavioral strategies, such as the inclusion of trained peer models, theatre play techniques involving predictable (i.e., scripted) and flexible (improvised) role-play, and repeated performance of newly learned skills resulting in greater automaticity of behavior. Recent findings from a randomized control trial (RCT) show immediate between- group effects and evidence of target engagement on the hypothesized mechanism of action, memory for faces, which was evaluated by neuropsychological and event-related potential (ERP) measures. Moreover, the RCT demonstrated treatment effects on social communication skills that generalized to home and community settings. Finally, maintained treatment effects were observed on communication symptoms. The proposed project will extend these findings and provide a stronger test of efficacy using a multisite RCT of SENSE Theatre with a large sample of 240 participants with ASD (8 to 16 years) randomized to experimental (N = 120) and an active control group (N = 120) in 12 separate cohorts. The RCT will assess target engagement of memory for faces, a foundational skill for social competence, and functional change in social interaction with peers using examiners blind to study treatment group assignment. The significance and size of treatment effects on these cognitive and behavioral outcomes will be measured using mixed level analysis. Thus, the overarching aim of the study is to determine whether detected changes in face memory and social interaction are due to the SENSE Theatre treatment and the extent to which these changes generalize and maintain. If predicted results occur, it will provide strong empirical support for a community-based treatment that has generalized effects on a set of core deficits that otherwise have life-long consequences for youth with ASD.
Current psychosocial interventions in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often fail to maintain or generalize and few employ rigorous experimental methodology. The use of trained peers, theatrical techniques and active performance of social communication shows promise. We propose to rigorously examine the impact of a theatre-based intervention that targets core social deficits that otherwise have life-long consequences for youth with ASD.