Autistic children who par­ti­cipate in drama and performance-based activities may demonstrate improved levels of communication and interpersonal interaction.

The children involved in the University of Kent research project experienced interactive sensory environments called outer space, under the sea and the Arctic.

Each environment was designed for the 22 children, aged seven to 12, to respond to triggers created through lighting, sound, physical action and puppets, the university said.

Trained performers promoted communication, socialisation, playful inter­action, and creative engagement, encouraging the children involved to find new ways of connecting with the world around them.

The research found changes in children’s behaviour such as social interaction and emotion recognition. The severity of autistic symptoms displayed by the children were also found to decrease significantly.

All of the children who took part in the research showed at least some improvements on at least one of the measures used to monitor change during the research, with over three quarters of them showing changes to more than one.

Research found changes in children’s behaviour such as social interaction and emotion recognition

Just under one-third of children who took part in the project showed significant changes on a measure of social interaction. Substantial changes in children’s behaviour at home were also reported by some families, a university spokeswoman said.

The practical methods used in the project are being trial­led at all National Autistic Society schools across the UK and are also being developed into training programmes for teachers, care workers, families, arts practitioners, and health professionals.

Nicola Shaughnessy, from the University’s School of Arts, said: “The methods we used have been recognised as having potential for development in the diagnosis of autism, revealing areas of ability, as well as difficulty. The work has also offered insights into the imagination of children with autism and the impor­tance of play-based approaches which can often be overlooked post-diagnosis.”