Friday, April 23, 2010

Autism Basic Science And Intervention Through Art

Blythe Corbett’s insights may be unique among researchers developing new interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders – at the M.I.N.D. Institute or elsewhere. Corbett’s Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) lab focuses chiefly on analysis of the behavioral and biological effects of the stress hormone cortisol on children with autism. But her work is informed by the eclectic professional experience of someone with a background in autism diagnosis, brain analysis, behavioral intervention – and acting.

“Results from my studies are revealing associations between a child’s behavior, biological profile and brain functioning before, during and after social interactions,” said Corbett, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “The ultimate hope is that these results will give us a better understanding of autism in order to develop individualized biological and behavioral treatments.”

In her quest for enhanced assessment and treatment of the social-emotional capabilities of children with autism, Corbett has focused on responses of the stress hormone cortisol during various potentially stressStress  Response Systemful settings, including playground interactions. With playtime periods discreetly videotaped for later moment-by-moment documentation of their behavior, a child with autism and a typically developing child are teamed with a “confederate” child who works with the researchers. They’re given various play opportunities, with their cortisol levels checked before and afterwards to assess their level of stress.

“Although there is a great deal of variability in stress levels among children with autism, many of our subjects seem to find playground interactions stressful–even kids who appear to be enjoying themselves,” explains Corbett.

Her cortisol studies have also revealed that children with autism often have elevated cortisol levels toward the end of the day, in contrast to typically developing children. These studies of
cortisol rhythms and responses raise many questions: Do those with autism have heightened sensory sensitivity, leading to heightened stress? Do they have a genetic predisposition to stress? What are the characteristics of the children who show high versus low levels of stress?

“Research is ongoing in my lab to answer these questions,” Corbett said. “It’s clear that understanding the biology beyond the behaviors can help lead directly to new, more effective interventions for our kids with autism, a priority for so many of us in this field.”

Corbett has drawn on her acting background to found a new all-volunteer theatrical intervention program, the SENSE Theatre, which teams typically developing children with child actors with autism to perform musicals and plays for live audiences. Acting provides a natural environment for children with developmental disabilities to better understand emotional expression, learn
scripts for typical conversations, have a safe place for repeating those scripts and for developing friendships with peers their own age – and feel the sense of pride that comes from receiving applause from an appreciative audience.

The project also helps develop the concept of video modeling, a tool that allows children with autism learn the behaviors of typically developing children by seeing them on video and repeating their behaviors. SENSE Theatre productions utilize youth actors as expert models who, as part of the rehearsal process, perform the roles in which the children with autism have been cast. In addition to working with the child during the rehearsals, these typically developing actors are videotaped in rehearsal performing the roles, and the children with autism are encouraged to study those videos from home. For performances, the typically developing actors are cast in different roles, giving them the chance to shine in front of audiences, too.

For more information about Blythe Corbett's SENSE Theater, visit their website at:

Reprinted with permission from UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute "M.I.N.D. Matters"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Theatre group performs "Wizard of OZ" selections at MIND Institute

March 24, 2010

Members of SENSE Theatre performed songs from their production of "The Wizard of OZ" this week at the UC Davis MIND Institute.

The cast members were at the MIND Institute on Monday for a tour of the facility and, as part of their visit, performed some of their favorite songs from the show for staff, patients and family members.

SENSE Theatre is a theatrical intervention research program designed to improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. The SENSE Theatre is part of research conducted by Blythe Corbett, a pediatric neuropsychologist at UC Davis MIND Institute. The theatre had a recent production of "The Wizard of OZ" at the Magic Circle Theatre in Roseville. The cast included 15 participants with autism.

Corbett's research arises from the Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) lab, where she focuses on social behavior, emotion perception and stress. Corbett is a former professional actor and writer with a long-standing love for the theatre. The SENSE Theatre program allows her to bridge the worlds of art and science to provide a unique therapeutic environment for children to learn how to think, feel and express in new and meaningful ways.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Making SENSE of Autism

By Megan Wood The Press Tribune

There’s something about being onstage that transforms Michael Valcour.

Under the bright lights of the Magic Circle Theatre, Valcour speaks with a purpose, dances with ease and sings with complete confidence.

Offstage, he becomes quiet, standoffish and has difficulty with the rhythm and comprehension of everyday conversation.

Onstage, you would never guess that the 37 year-old with a powerful singing voice has autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects one in every 150 American children.

But SENSE Theatre, and its co-founder Blythe Corbett have given Valcour and his 14 fellow cast mates of all ages diagnosed with varying degrees of autism, a chance at showbiz.

“Theater is transforming for anyone, regardless of their abilities,” Corbett said. “But for children with autism, it’s a vehicle for them to express themselves and be social with other typically developing children.”

For the past eight years, Corbett has been studying the social and emotional processes in children with Autism at the MIND institute at UC Davis. A former actress herself, Corbett saw theatre as a form of intervention to improve the functioning of children with autism.

SENSE Theatre is now in its second year bringing Dorothy and the gang to life with “The Wizard of Oz.”

The program has partnered with the Magic Circle Theatre’s master class, which recently held their own production of “The Wizard of Oz,” to pair typically developing children with counterparts with varying degrees of Autism or “buddyies.” The children act alongside each other in full stage productions that improve their social interaction skills.

Ten-year-old Sammie Lee is a veteran actor with Magic Circle, having been in productions since she was four. Her role in “The Wizard of Oz” represents her 28th production, but none has been as impactful, as her role with SENSE.

“(From) the first day we met our buddies to how they are onstage now has been amazing,” Sammie said. “They’re all so good and have improved so much.”

Sammie is partnered with Claire Patton to provide guidance and onstage support in her roles as an Ozian and a Monkey.

“Before she wanted her mom all the time and would whisper everything,” Sammie said. “Now she talks to everyone and gives hugs and actually enjoys being onstage. I’m so proud of her.”

SENSE parent Becky Leung has seen her son, Eric, make major strides in his social skills and coping with conflict.

“He’s very rigid, everything has to stick to a schedule or he gets upset,” Leung said. “But in theatre, not everything is routine. There’s changes and he’s doing better with that.”

A big improvement in her son came on the night costumes were handed out. Eric, a munchkin in the production, was handed his green ensemble and, to his mother’s surprise, didn’t have an outburst about the change in wardrobe.

“He normally will only wear blue and white, his school uniform colors,” Leung said. “Wearing all black and now the bright green without a fit is a big step for him.”

At first, Leung said she was nervous about 12-year-old Eric’s reaction of being on onstage without her supervision. But with the help of his “buddy,” Eric has taken his role, singing, dancing and all, in stride.

“He loves to sing, and being able to do the other things in the play have really built up his confidence,”Leung said. “He has a lot of support and positive reinforcement here. This gives him something to be proud of, something he’ll remember for a very long time.”

Know and Go

Sense Theatre presents “The Wizard of Oz”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tonight

2 p.m. March 7

Cost: Tickets $15

Where: Magic Circle Theatre

241 Vernon St.

Info: To purchase tickets or for more information

Megan Wood can be reached at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SENSE Theatre Featured in Rocklin & Roseville Today

SENSE Theatre The Wizard of Oz

SENSE Theatre's "A Stage of Hope for Children with Autism joins with actors from the Magic Circle Master Series for a special production of The Wizard of Oz. SENSE Theatre is a unique intervention research program combining established behavioral science approaches alongside creative theatrical techniques to improve the social and emotional abilities of children with autism.

This special production of The Wizard of Oz will feature 14 children with autism spectrum disorders cast alongside several youth actors from the Magic Circle Theatre Master Series. Under the directorship of Blythe Corbett, Ph.D. and her SENSE Theatre team, SENSE participants will be teamed up with typically developing peer actors that will serve as "master models" of emotion, expression and social interaction. This inspiring program provides a unique opportunity for children with autism to learn, explore and express themselves in a creative, supportive and enjoyable way.
For more information, please visit

The SENSE Theatre production of The Wizard of Oz will perform March 5 @ 7:30pm, March 6 @ 7:30pm and March 7 @ 2:00pm at the Roseville Theater, 241 Vernon Street, Roseville, CA 95678. For tickets call our Box Office at (916) 782-1777 or visit us at

Monday, March 1, 2010

Temple Grandin sees her autism as a gift, not a disability.

(CNN) -- Temple Grandin sees her autism as a gift, not a disability.

The professor at Colorado State University, who has become a prominent animal rights activist, spoke at the recent TED Conference in California about how people's brains work in different ways -- and how that's something that should be appreciated, not stigmatized.

Grandin, for instance, thinks in pictures, "like Google for images," she said.

She also grabs hold of details, a brain function she feels could help politicians.

"I get satisfaction out of seeing stuff that makes real change in the real world," she said. "We need a lot more of that and a lot less abstract stuff."

Video: Watch Grandin's talk at the TED Conference

One of her biggest real-world accomplishments, she said, was when a mother recently told her that her autistic child had gone to college because of Grandin's inspiration.

Grandin's life also is the subject of a new HBO film, in which she's played by actress Claire Danes.