Autism in the Studio
Determine if a child on the spectrum can join your class.
Temper tantrums, resistance to change, lack of communication skills. It’s hard to imagine an autistic child smoothly entering the highly disciplined world of dance. It’s even more difficult when you consider that unpredictable behaviors mean no two children are alike. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve only met one child with autism,” says choreographer Victoria Marks, who has an 11-year-old son on the spectrum. “It’s important for teachers to know they won’t really understand each child until they meet them,” she says.
With one out of 88 children in the U.S. diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s likely that you will come across a parent who wants to enroll their child in your class. Understandably, this may be something you’re hesitant to take on. How do you know if your classroom will provide the right environment, without sacrificing the training of your other students?
If an autistic student takes your class, you have the chance to make a huge impact in the child’s development. There is evidence that movement classes are enormously beneficial to ASD children, helping develop coordination and balance, speech, self-discipline and social skills. But determining if you can handle this student will depend on the child’s behavior patterns.
Identifying Autistic Behavior
Assessing whether a student can join your class begins outside the studio. Joanne Lara, founder and director of Autism Movement Therapy, a certification program for dance studio owners and others interested in autism education, says a conversation with the parents will help you understand what triggers the child’s behavioral issues. From a parent’s perspective, Marks also values two-way communication. “I want to make sure the teacher has a skill set for managing and supporting my child, but also that they understand that he doesn’t intend to undermine the class.”
Lara says there are three main patterns to look for when meeting a child on the spectrum: social skill impairment, behavioral issues and speech and language difficulties. They may have difficulty connecting with people and the surrounding activities and, in turn, they will have trouble expressing themselves, processing questions and listening to instructions. Sometimes, they are extra sensitive to sensory stimuli, like loud music. Autistic children may also engage in self-stimulatory behaviors like rocking back and forth, turning by themselves in a circle, staring at lights, flapping their hands in front of their faces or repeating words or phrases.
If you feel comfortable after talking with the parent, allow the child to take a trial class to determine if they can enroll full-time. If you decide that your class just isn’t right for a particular student, have a frank conversation with the parents. “Let them know that the child needs behavioral sessions or time with a social skills program before they can come back,” says Lara.
Teaching ASD Students
Preparing a class that incorporates an ASD child will take extra thought. You may have to restructure your lesson plan or reevaluate how you communicate with your students. For instance, children with auditory issues may be able to repeat verbatim what you’re saying but won’t understand the meaning of those words. They tend to think more visually and grasp concepts by learning in pictures versus words. Tap into their visual strengths by making sure they watch you demonstrate exercises full-out. Students who do not think in pictures at all need an auditory way of learning. Bonnie Schlachte, founder of the nonprofit program Ballet for All Kids, says she sings steps to help those who are auditorily inclined. “Every child has an access point,” says Schlachte. “You just need to find that and use it as a springboard to develop them in other areas.”
Schlachte is adamant that teachers do not lower their expectations for an autistic child. “Don’t let them do a sloppy tendu just because they’re autistic,” she says. “Have the expectation that they will listen and dance.” As with any student, setting a high bar is the best way to engage them. She suggests pairing the child with an older student or assistant as a “buddy,” explaining that they should copy the friend throughout the class. This accommodation helps train social and mirroring skills. “You want them to be fully included even if it doesn’t happen smoothly at the beginning,” says Lara. When they accomplish a task, reward them with praise. “The guide for teaching kids with autism is to catch them being good,” says Marks, who is a professor at UCLA. “‘Great way to get in line!’ or ‘Nice way to use your leg!’ will go far.”
Inevitably, there will be bumps along the way. “The biggest challenge is that autistic behaviors aren’t predictable,” says Lara. If you are confronted with tantrums or outbursts, she suggests a direct approach. “Do you want to dance or do you want to sit out?” she asks her students. “If you want to dance, then I’m sorry, you can’t act this way.” Serious blowups, like a child throwing themselves on the floor, may require a larger intervention than you feel comfortable with. While a parent should not be in the classroom on a regular basis, it’s best to have them nearby to intervene, though Marks cautions that at a certain age, specific to the child, it can be stigmatizing.
It may take extra time and effort to surmount the difficulties, but helping a student successfully embrace dance can be rewarding. “Ballet is fabulous for our kids because it requires the entire brain to come together. They feel comfortable in structure,” says Lara. “The arts are a bridge, and it’s a way of healing.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt, a former dancer, now a teacher, writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.