Breakthrough learning for autistic children

A Greek psychologist has developed a world first program to help autistic children integrate into their social environments through play and drama.

Socialising doesn’t come naturally for autistic children- they often have difficulty recognising or understanding other people’s emotions and feelings, and expressing their own.This is something that Ireland-based Dr Haris Karnezi is trying to change.

The drama teacher and actress who also holds a PhD in psychology completed her studies last year on a model that aims to improve their social communication using the universal language of children: fun.

“My model is based on the art form of drama, so it’s very much based on motivating autistic children to learn rather than teaching them skills,” says the actress and drama teacher turned PhD psychologist.

“What has been done up to now for autistic children is to teach them rules by heart: you shouldn’t look at a person for more than two seconds in the eyes or you will make them uncomfortable.

“But I find that when children learn rules they may remember them but they don’t know when to apply them so they become robotic and stand even more out.”

The Cognitive Behavioural Drama Model is based on the Drama Education Model, which was developed by Dorothy Heathcote in the 1970s- a form of drama involving on problem solving.

However Dr Karnezi takes it a step further by integrating cognitive behaviour therapy to positively reinforce social interaction and address the specific difficulties that the child might have.

These often include lack of empathy, trouble understanding non-verbal cues and inappropriate behaviour such as excessive eye contact.

“I start by building a drama around a child’s special interest, encouraging them to seek various solutions on numerous problems,” she says.

“For example, if a child has a special interest or fixation on a little pig, you ask them, let’s give the little pig a name, let’s play with him, let’s feed him, and they start getting engaged and excited – children have to contribute their own ideas so it is their story, which helps them to build ownership,” she says.

“Once they have identified with the story, then you introduce the problem: the pig has gone missing, do you think you are brave enough to go on a mission to find the pig?”
Dr Karnezi says that she then has to then create a need for the child to perform the skill.

“A child who has problem with eye contact might be told that the king knows where the pig is but he has lost his voice, and the child will have to read the lips of the king (my lips) to get what they want.”

Dr Karnezi says that overcoming the problem helps to reinforce the child’s self esteem and motivation to engage in the social world.

“I believe the most important part of social success which is often overlooked is enjoyment,” she says.

“These children have no idea they are coming to drama to learn social skills but once they enjoy themselves, they want to engage and I have the opportunity to teach them more.”

The CBD programmes are currently offered in Greece, Ireland, and will be available in Australia from early next year.

Please see the web site: for further details.