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. 

 

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com

 

 

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox