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Giving kids with autism a chance to shine

Photo of SENSE theater group.
Franc D'Ambrosio sings "High Hopes" with SENSE Theatre performers at a February benefit for the new performing arts and intervention program.

On the evening of February 6, 16-year-old Esteban Marchant received a thunderous, standing ovation with his rendition of Elton John’s "Your Song" at a heart-warming variety show and benefit marking the founding of the SENSE Theatre. The response from the more than 200 audience members was all the more remarkable in light of Esteban’s personal story. Orphaned at age 7, unable to talk and exhibiting the unruly behavior often associated with autism, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle and enrolled in a variety of UC Davis MIND Institute programs. His singing performance showed how very far he’s come in just nine years.

Esteban’s is the kind of success story that is likely to be repeated many times over through the newly launched SENSE Theatre, also known as a “stage of hope” for children with autism. The February benefit was just a preview of the kind of performance opportunities that the new project will provide to help improve the social and emotional functioning of children with autism and related disorders.

The effort is based on the research and clinical work of pediatric neuropsychologist Blythe Corbett of the MIND Institute, where the theatrical intervention program is part of her Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology — or SENSE — lab. According to Corbett, acting is an avenue for children with developmental disabilities to better understand emotional expression, learn scripts for typical conversations, develop friendships with peers their own age and feel the sense of pride that comes from receiving applause from an appreciative audience.

Photo of Blythe Corbett. © 2009 UC Regents“Children with autism can be deeply challenged and stressed by social interactions. The theater is an ideal environment for giving them the opportunity to learn the nuances of social and emotional communication while helping them to overcome the stress that often accompanies such interactions.”
— Blythe Corbett

“Children with autism can be deeply challenged and stressed by social interactions,” said Corbett, who also has an acting background. “The theater is an ideal environment for giving them the opportunity to learn the nuances of social and emotional communication while helping them to overcome the stress that often accompanies such interactions.”

Corbett co-founded the all-volunteer, nonprofit SENSE Theatre with clinical psychologist Joan Gunther and autism activist and MIND Institute board member Christine Totah, whose son, Alex, is among the performers. The young performers include children with autism as well as kids who are typically progressing.

Advancing toward a cure

M.I.N.D. Institute ©2009 UC RegentsThe UC Davis MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute is an international, multidisciplinary research organization committed to excellence, collaboration and hope, striving to understand the causes and develop better treatments and, ultimately, cures for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, families, scientists, physicians and educators are working together to unlock the mysteries of the mind.

For more information, visit www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute.

The benefit performance was held at the Davis Musical Theatre Company, the group’s community partner. A featured singer was Broadway actor Franc D’Ambrosio, known as “the longest-running phantom” for his record-breaking number of performances in touring productions of “Phantom of the Opera.” He performed a show-stopping medley of songs from “Oklahoma!” and “Phantom.” Together with the SENSE Theater Youth Ensemble, he closed his set with a poignant rendition of "High Hopes."

“It’s an honor to be a part of a program that gives children with autism an opportunity to develop their social-emotional skills and at the same time participate in an event that will give them a sense of camaraderie and personal achievement,” Gunther said. “In addition, the program offers typically developing children an opportunity to broaden their view of the world and offer assistance and empathy to others.”

Photo of SENSE performers
About the front page photo: SENSE Theatre performers staged their first production of "Jungle Book" to packed audiences in June.

Esteban, Alex and all SENSE Theater participants will be cast in a series of musicals to be performed for the public. The troupe’s first — Disney’s “The Jungle Book” — ran in June at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center in Davis to sold out or nearly sold out performances. The SENSE team is interested in partnering with more theaters that are willing to provide access and support for their productions. For partnership opportunities, contact Corbett at blythe.corbett@ucdmc.ucdavis.edu.