The Hunter Heartbeat Method

Our innovative productions of Shakespeare for autistic individuals and their families use the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a series of sensory drama games, which allow autistic individuals to share how it feels to be alive and celebrate their identity. Autistic individuals have created this award-winning methodology across the world, working with Artistic Director Kelly Hunter MBE over the last twenty years.

In 2001 I had been an actor at the RSC for some time and I was increasingly at odds with the status quo. I knew that Shakespeare’s plays have four keywords running through them – eyes, mind reason and love – creating a poetry of the ‘seeing brain’ and the ‘loving eye’. I knew there is a mystery in his iambic rhythms that sent me almost crazy. I found that these things were barely of interest to anyone I was working with at the time in Stratford. I was not the person I wanted to be.

So, I took myself off to the Glebe school, a special school in Beckenham and offered my services to teach Shakespeare to people with no access to the arts. I gave myself the task of creating ways to use Shakespeare so that it lived, wholly and completely in the moment, for the people engaged in it. The school welcomed me with open arms. “You can play with anyone here, except those children” they said, pointing to a closed door, “because they have autism, and they won’t be able to play”

I did play with those children. For an hour once a week, every week for three years and little by little they taught me how to play with them. I never missed one session. Some struggled to make eye contact, and some struggled with articulating their thoughts and feelings. I focused on alleviating these struggles through creating games, which were short, fun, and easily repeatable, requiring only the human voice and body and another person to play with. These sensory games derive from moments in Shakespeare’s plays where he invented his ‘loving eye’ and his ‘seeing brain’. Moments of genius. The rhythms of the iambic became a soothing means of transition, with the collective repetition of heartbeats at the beginning and end of every session. During these “Heartbeat Circles” everyone involved seemed to become calmer.

Over the last twenty years these Heartbeat Circles and sensory games have developed into the Hunter Heartbeat Method; a living practice that will continue to change and respond to whoever is using it.  The games will continue to be created by playing with autistic individuals not for them. 

These sensory games form the basis for Flute Theatre’s productions for autistic individuals and their families. During the Covid-19 pandemic we adapted everything to be accessible online in different languages across the world. We now have two distinct ways of sharing an artistic space with autistic individuals which we will continue to develop as the pandemic shapes our futures together.

Artistic Director, Kelly Hunter MBE  – September 2021

When I arrived on Friday morning I was ASTONISHED. I have never, ever seen my son behave the way he did. He was seeking out, sitting with and CUDDLING his new young adult pals, with whom he had obviously formed a strong bond in this short space of time. He was engaged, and inordinately happy. It had to be seen to be believed. I cannot stress this enough, this engaged, entirely committed child was like no other version of my son I have ever seen. He still beats his little chest to say hello and goodbye! I have no idea what it was in those sessions which so grasped him, and awoke the part of him which wants to interact. I just know it was the nearest I have seen him to ‘play’, if that makes sense. It is certainly the most communicative I have seen him.

Gill Walsh Taylor, Marcus’ Mother

I was blown away by the sensitive performance of the group of dedicated and highly knowledgeable actors who managed to immerse and involve a group of adolescents with severe autism in their creative interpretation of the Tempest. I think very highly of the work of Flute Theatre and thoroughly recommend their approach. It is a wonderful contribution to a more holistic education of individuals with autism, and it would seem to be applicable at all ages and all abilities, including those without language.

Uta Frith DBE

When I was 2, my brother was diagnosed with severe autism, and my journey trying to understand him began. Throughout my directing career, I have searched for a process of connect the intimacy of theatre to the rigidity of his autism. Kelly Hunter has found that process. There is no more effective way to teach social skills, promote inclusion, and awaken the soul than the Hunter Heartbeat method. The program changed my life, and ever since I started teaching it, it has changed the lives of the hundreds of individuals who have experienced the awakening it provides.

Ben Raanan, Director and Advocate

Shakespeare's heartbeat



For more information read Shakespeare’s Heartbeat, drama games for autistic individuals by Kelly Hunter. Published in 2014 by Routledge:

“For me – working in a special school – there is so much material here that is of huge benefit to children who struggle with social interaction. This should be on the shelf of every SEN teacher as there are activities here that would work on many levels for children both verbal and non-verbal, ASD or not.”
Lucy Ellen Rix, Teaching Drama