Drama Sensory Autism games redefined by The Flute Theatre Company.

Kelly Hunter MBE

Flute Theatre company is a charity based in London, United Kingdom. It was founded by Kelly Hunter MBE. The Flute Theatre specialises with ‘The Hunter heartbeat method,’ which is a creative process of inclusive theatre ‘for those with ASD by those with ASD’ with a magic touch by the founder. The method includes a series of sensory drama activities developed using the plays of Shakespeare.

Kelly Hunter started her journey in theatre as an actor. She was performing at the West End and touring with her productions when she received her first call to the Royal Shakespeare Company(RSC). She spent over 2 decades with the RSC as an actor and director for several nationally touring and international plays. In 2001, she decided to part ways with the performance aspect of the craft and teach students to whom art was not as accessible. This led her to teaching in schools and charities for the benefit of the students and faculty. It was in one of these institutions that the Hunter Heartbeat Method was born.

While she was being briefed about the children she could teach, the principal specifically told her that there was a section of students she was not allowed to play with or train. Kelly being her curious self, found out that these kids were on the Autistic Spectrum. It was at that moment that she committed to classes with these students for once a week that went on for three full years. Kelly devised the sensory drama games around the fantastical plays of Shakespeare, namely:Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Pericles.

The eye contact game from The Tempest

These plays were picked because the characters displayed fantastical characteristics and allowed one’s imagination to run wild in terms of interpretation. It wasn’t about being as human or  realistic, but about being unique and honest about one’s interpretation. The kids invariably felt comforted by the freedom of interpretation and the lack of pressure to adhere to societal prerequisites. There were no restrictions on how one walks, speaks or interacts as long as one was enjoying the process of using these fairies, monsters, giants and wizards to communicate and express. Kelly did not miss a single session in these three years that followed as the students taught her how she could teach them.

One of the most interesting and unique characteristics of this style is how the work was developed in collaboration with individuals on the Autistic Spectrum for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD). It was during this time that she understood some of the commonalities that exist between those on either extremes of the spectrum. Eye contact, Balance, Social skills and Articulation are among few of the universal challenges that children and young adults experience while living with ASD. These discoveries allowed Kelly to carefully craft the games she saw the kids enjoy into games that characters from Shakespeare’s plays would play in the context of the plot. She also learnt the importance of time and how special the relationship with schedules could be for those with ASD.  This aspect of time  inspired the creation of the ‘Hellos’ and ‘Goodbyes’ exercise.

The effect of the games on the children with ASD who participate

The Hellos and Goodbyes were used intentionally to mark the beginning and the conclusion of a given day of playing the Hunter heartbeat games. They are a simple exercise which involves gently tapping one’s hand on their chest, over their heart, repeating the word Hello or Goodbye, depending on the beginning or end of the day. This exercise has been useful in allowing all the kids/young adults to tune in to the centre of the room where the games would be played out. In a typical setup there would be a giant chalk circle or white taped circle marked out on the floor. The actors and musicians would sit around the circle leaving enough room among themselves to invite the kids/young adults to join in. From a bird’s eye view, this setup would attempt to mimic a womb like structure easing the individuals to participate. After several rounds of the Hellos, actors who would have individuals around them at this point and would begin adding the names of their Autistic partners at the end of the Hellos. It would sound something like, “Hello Kelly, Hello Kelly” with a focus on matching the words with the rhythm of the heartbeat and furthermore, the Iambic Pentameter.

The performance circle, signifying the womb like structure marked on the floor

The Iambic Pentameter is a rhyme scheme which is used almost throughout the plays of Shakespeare. They follow the ‘ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum ba bum’ rhythm which resembles the sound of the heartbeat. The Shakesperean plays allowed for the fantastical interpretations and a rhyme scheme that was not disorienting to the participants. Individuals on the autistic spectrum find varying inflexion points quite disrupting, however when the rhyme scheme is constant and periodic, it was noticed that the effect was far more comforting.

Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex of a human brain lights up when one hears their own name. The added comfort of a womb-like structure allows both, facilitators and participants to feel the utmost level of comfort before the games that attempt to make the participants practice Eye contact, Balance, Social skills and Articulation. The simplicity of the first game attempts to tap into the spirit of imitation among human beings. Through experience, it was noticed that if one enjoys a rhythm and lyric, here heartbeat and name, the automatic impulse is to copy the same. This initial impetus is then borrowed throughout the process of the games to help train the individuals with ASD.

Following and Mimicking help in teaching the games. One cannot rely on long form explanations and that would be counterproductive with this work.

After Kelly understood the application of the work, she spent the better part of the years from 2004 to the present day developing ways the work can be employed with special needs schools, non profit organisations, special needs groups nationally and internationally. The games have helped countless individuals realise ways in which they may engage with those on the spectrum. It has also given tremendous relief to parents who would find it otherwise challenging to interact with their children.

The games are taught to the kids playing and the parents watching to help with communication outside the rehearsal space.

“When I started creating this work I didn’t take photographs or make films of the children as I wanted to let them feel completely unobserved and free. Twenty years later, the families, teachers and young people themselves want to tell the world about these experiences, so that more people who are marginalised and excluded by autism can share our unique way of making theatre.”

-Kelly Hunter MBE


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Satnaam Shri Waheguru