Children with Autism: Dancing Together

As I begin a third year dancing with two self-contained classes for students with autism, I take heart by reflecting on these last two growing years. So much seems possible by now that my goal for this year is to find a way for their class to join our end-of-year performance. Whether we achieve it or not, it’s a goal that was nowhere on the horizon when we started. The following piece captures our progress as of last January, after 15 months together.

They arrive every day, my students with autism, barefoot and ready.  We’ve come a long way since our beginning together.  When we started, we were all newbies: I had no previous experience with autism, and some of my students with autism had no previous experience with school, much less dance!  On our first day together, the more experienced group reacted to my leap-over boxes by squashing them underfoot, and my youngest group ran wild, shutting off light switches, pushing buttons, dumping out baskets of scarves, and trying every door for escape. 

Each of these students is a little older now and more experienced with school.  There’s a whole team pulling for them: teachers, instructional assistants, occupational therapist, physical therapist, tutors, and student helpers.  The team has gained experience and consistency — not so many one-day-only substitutes, and I’m no longer completely clueless! 

The younger class (K-2nd grade) has added three students, with each new student upsetting the apple cart of behavior and consistency.  With nine now, the class is overloaded.  Still, our days are better than most of last year, and it probably helps that Milly the Wanderer* transitioned to a different program.  The older class (2nd-4th grade) is pretty settled, especially since Cedrick the Screamer* moved to a new school. 

We still do many of the activities that we did last year (BrainDance, obstacle courses, Freeze Dances, props) but some of our new successes have come in the area of dancing and (literally) pulling together…

With the children sitting on stools, I pass out segments of a huge elastic band.  On alternating phrases of the music, we pull the band backwards to make it HUGE and let it shrink inward to a smaller circle.  When we began, it was difficult to corral them all into one locale, much less to form a circle and join an activity. But lo and behold, they do it together – grab on and pull!  We’ve even tried it standing, which amazingly was more successful with the littler kiddos than the bigger ones.

In another activity sitting on the floor, we have our feet under a parachute, moving together to music…we wiggle toes, kick feet, lift the parachute and see each other underneath, pull it down and see each other over the top. We’ve even extended our repertoire to lifting it, scooting under, sitting on the edge and then kicking our feet.  Or we ripple the parachute, taking turns walking across the ripples. All of these simple activities showcase the students’ increasing comfort at interacting in a group.

The song “Gotta shake when the spirit says shake” has been great for taking turns and developing individuality.  I start it with one verse, and then I ask each child to take a turn “suggesting” a move.  Some of the kids actually have an idea and can barely contain it, while there are others whom I invite repeatedly, watching for a clear move that we can replicate.  That everyone sits in our circle at all is the result of lots of practice and redirection on the part of the adults in the room. That everyone leads at least once is pure pleasure, and the ideas get better & better.

So as of last January, we had come a long way. By June five of the students with autism joined mainstream classes to rehearse and perform at our end-of-year performance. And next week we’ll start a new school year… I’m armed with wonderment at how they’ve grown already, three new books to inspire them, and the hope that they’ll all perform next June!

*Not their real names, or even their real personalities, but definitely the qualities that they personified during their time with me last year.

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