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SENSE Theatre® Research Program

SENSE Theatre® is a unique intervention research program for youth, 10-16 years of age, with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The program was developed by Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Psychology and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.

Enrollment is open for a new 4-year project funded by the National Institute of Health investigating the impact of theatre and peer mediation on the social competence of youth with autism spectrum disorder. The multisite project is led by Dr. Corbett and will be conducted at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and two other universities, Virginia Tech and Stony Brook University.

The study will compare the effects of two treatments developed for youth with ASD. Following an assessment provided at no cost, participants will be randomly assigned to one of the following treatments:

SENSE Theatre® is a performance-based intervention targeting social skills that includes trained peer actors and theatre techniques.

Tackling Teenage® Training is an education program that involves teaching youth with ASD about psychological, social and sexual development. Research Components and Visits include testing before, after, and three months following the intervention:

  • Psychological Testing (2 hours)
  • Social Interaction (15 minutes)
  • Research EEG (45 minutes)
  • Intervention takes place over 10 sessions on either Saturdays (SENSE Theatre) or weekday late afternoons (Tackling Teenage)

Participation in research is necessary to receive the treatment.

The SENSE Lab works in collaboration with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and the University School of Nashville.

Interested families may contact us at or by calling (615) 322-4132 (lab) or (615) 513-9562 (cell)
To apply for a peer position, please contact the SENSE Lab at

SENSE Theatre Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the goal of the SENSE Theatre program?

A: The goal of the SENSE Theatre program is to improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through using behavioral and theatre techniques. The children with ASD are paired with trained typically developing youth actors that serve as expert models of social interaction as well as co-actors on the stage. Youth with and without autism from 10-16 years of age will participate in the program. The participants’ efforts will culminate in two public performances at the end of the program.

Q: Can I sign my child up for the SENSE Theatre program?

A: There is an assessment process for the intervention, and it is a funded research program. Thus, participation in research is necessary to receive the treatment at this time.

Q: Does my child meet the criteria for attending the intervention program?

A: Criteria are:
  • An autism spectrum disorder diagnosis
  • Minimum age at time of intervention: 10 years; Maximum age: 16 years
  • Verbal and able to respond to directions
  • Toilet trained
  • Non-aggressive

Q: How much does the program cost?

A: Participation in the program is free to both participants and peer helpers. However, participation in the research is necessary to receive the treatment.

Q: When can I apply?

A: Applications are reviewed on an ongoing basis. You will automatically receive an application (and updates) if you are on the notification list. To join the notification list, please complete this form.

Q: My child with autism has a typically developing sibling. Can I enroll the sibling as a peer helper?

A: The SENSE Theatre program pairs the participants with ASD with unfamiliar, highly-trained typically developing peers. In our model, we teach the peers to engage the ASD children using behavioral and theatre techniques in the process of learning a play. As such, we do not enroll siblings of participants because one of our primary goals is to allow the child with ASD to interact with novel peers to provide an opportunity to learn new skills and develop friendships. However, we invite typically developing peers who show both interest in serving as a peer helper and good social communication skills, and are willing to commit to the training and intervention schedule.

Q: What are the primary activities?

A: The children participate in daily physical and vocal exercises, theatre games, role playing, improvisation, singing, character development, and more. These skills and activities are then translated into scenes as part of a play. Singing is, therefore, a requirement for participation. In addition, participants are expected to watch and practice videos of roles and scenes from home that are placed on a password protected website. This allows them to improve their learning and have fun practicing their parts from home too.

Q: What are the program hours?

A: The program takes place Saturday afternoons. The Thursday and Friday of the final week may have extended hours due to the need for longer rehearsals. Peers participate in training before the intervention.

Q: Can I stay with my child during the program?

A: Since one of the primary goals of SENSE Theatre is to help children to engage in social interaction with their peers, we ask that parents allow their children to attend on their own. This gives the child every opportunity to develop new friendships and to practice their developing social skills with supportive peers. However, parents are most welcome to attend the theatre performances on Friday and Saturday!

Q: What does the research aspect of the program look like?


Time Point


Duration of Activity


Pre-Intervention Activities 
(2-4 weeks before) 

Parent Questionnaires

30-60 minutes

Home or Clinic

Pre-Intervention Assessment

2 hours

Village at Vanderbilt SENSE Clinic

Peer Interaction

15 minutes

Kennedy Center

ERP Tasks

45 minutes

Kennedy Center


Afternoon Intervention Sessions

4 hours per session/ 
10 weeks 

University School of Nashville (USN)


1 hour per performance

Belmont Black Box Theatre or USN

Post-Intervention Activities
(1-3 weeks after) 

Parent Questionnaires

30-60 minutes

Home or Clinic

Post-Intervention Assessment

2 hours

Village at Vanderbilt SENSE Clinic

Peer Interaction

15 minutes

Kennedy Center

ERP Tasks

45 minutes

Kennedy Center

Follow-Up Activities
(3 months after) 

Follow-Up Assessment same as above

Same as above

Same as above

Q: What is ERP research?

A: ERP stands for event-related potential, which is a measured brain response to either an internal or external event. In other words, it is a measured brain response that is the result of a thought, perception or action. Testing will involve recording your child's brain waves using soft sensors placed on your child's head. These sensors are arranged like a shower cap. Once the net is in place, your child will look at pictures on a computer screen. To learn more, please visit: The ERP Topic Page

Information about Peer Participants

Typically developing children serve as peer models for children with ASD , modeling appropriate social and emotional behavior. SENSE Theatre peers must complete a full-day pre-program training. They will learn specific skills to successfully work with children with autism spectrum disorder and related neurodevelopmental disorders. The intervention program includes rehearsals, therapeutic practice sessions and theatre activities that will culminate in a performance of a play with music. The performances will take place over two weekend evenings. The practice and rehearsals will involve working with a psychologist, a theatre director and fellow cast members. The practice/rehearsal sessions will involve learning about understanding and expressing emotions, speaking and using gestures in new ways, and imitating other people’s behavior. During various practices and during the performances, peers may be videotaped while performing. The videotapes during rehearsals will be used for coding behavioral responses and to show children with ASD to assist them in the intervention process.

To apply for a peer position, please complete the application at this link: There is no cost for peer participants to attend.

For more information contact:

(615) 322-4132, (615) 513-9562 or