Using Hip Hop to Reach Kids with Autism

The Rhythm Works curriculum helps students improve communication and motor development. Photo courtesy of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance

Terms like "proprioceptive" and "vestibular input" don't often come up in the dance studio. But for Rhythm Works Integrative Dance (RWID) founder Tricia Gomez, they were the "magic words" that convinced a reluctant school principal to give dance a try.

Gomez's hip hop–based curriculum fuses rhythm and dance for students with learning differences. Launch Preschool in Torrance, California, serves children or adults who have autism or other disabilities. Their partnership is one of many that Gomez has built since the program's implementation in 2015. In some cases RWID is delivered in schools that cater to disabled students, such as Launch, but in others, it's used in programs where these students are mainstreamed.


"There was one little girl who had only ever rolled on the floor and cried," Gomez says. "Our dance class was the first activity in which she had ever participated. She loved it!" Almost immediately, the student began to exhibit increased verbal skills and follow step-by-step instructions, due in part to activities designed to stimulate vestibular receptors and increase proprioceptive input. The school principal was so happy with the program that she requested they perform at the school's open house after just two weeks. Thanks to Gomez's RWID curriculum, educators and therapists across the country can replicate her strategies.

The Motivation

Success stories such as these are common in Gomez's line of work, but the path that led her to Launch Preschool was anything but.

"I studied dance throughout high school," she explains, "but grew up in a small town where being a professional dancer wasn't even an option." She spent two years in pursuit of a chemical engineering degree before a successful audition for the L.A. Laker Girls brought her to California.

After racking up a number of performance credits, celebrity appearances and consulting gigs, Gomez founded Hip Hop in a Box, a DIY curriculum designed to teach hip hop, comprised of mix-and-match cards, complete with an instructional DVD and original music. Business was great, but then Gomez suffered a late-term miscarriage and almost lost her life.

"I knew that I was left behind for a reason," she says. "There was a purpose that I needed to find. During this time, the word 'autism' kept coming into my life, no matter what I was doing or who I was talking to. Somebody would ask, and I thought, 'Maybe that's what I need to do.'"

She set out to educate herself. One of the courses she took was an SIPT (sensory integration and praxis test) course at USC, an experience that was intense since she was the only dance educator in the room among a crowd of doctors, neurologists and therapists.

While looking on Facebook for the textbooks she needed, Gomez ran across an old friend, Dr. Shaana Berman, whose specialty is early childhood special education. Through a number of equally serendipitous connections, Gomez began assembling a team ranging from physical and occupation therapists to experts in autism and sensory integration. Together, they built RWID.

The Goals
The Rhythm Works curriculum came to focus on five key "developmental domains," including communication, motor development, self-help, social/emotional development and cognitive development. Classes are based on 150 hip-hop dance steps divided into 31 "skill set categories" designed to help students with learning differences and other disabilities achieve developmental goals.

In 2015, Gomez began offering school programs through Rhythm Works and began training dance educators and physical therapists as Certified Rhythm Works instructors. There are three-day in-person trainings, online trainings and hybrid online and in-person trainings, ranging from $535 to $849. Coursework is geared toward individuals, such as OTs or PTs, with two years experience teaching dance or one year experience in working with clients who have disabilities.

The Curriculum

How does her curriculum work?

Each class begins with a rhythm exercise involving body percussion and call-and-response exercises. After a quick warm-up, the students work on a dance routine based on Gomez's 150 hip-hop dance moves and end the class with a game designed to address a specific concern, such as freeze dance to curtail impulsive behaviors.

Because many of her students are affected by Auditory Processing Disorder, Gomez relies on visual aids. To introduce the concept of right and left, she'll place a red sticker or stamp on a student's right hand and use yellow for the left. These colors correspond to matching floor pads, thus "giving students a path."

She's also had rubber squares manufactured to help students know where to stand. "I got sick of having to always put tape down," she says, laughing. Her curriculum also uses what she calls "somatosensory" or hand-over-hand movement to guide students into certain positions. Teachers provide cues through physical contact but can pull back as students start to take their own initiative.

The "Cool" Factor

Because of hip hop's intrinsic "cool" factor, students are usually eager to participate. "As they grow older," Gomez says, "they start attending school dances. They hear hip-hop music being played, and it gives them the confidence to participate."

Gomez is focusing on getting Rhythm Works into more public schools this year. Her Hip Hop in a Box curriculum has already found a home in 2,500 schools and studios across the country. In Colorado, for example, two school districts have implemented the program to give students five-minute "brain breaks" as a reward for good behavior.

Gomez is passionate about educating other teachers. "I want them to open their eyes, to see possibilities instead of problems. We see maladaptive behavior, but when you look into what might be causing it, you realize that you have the power to do something about it."

Kat Richter, MA, teaches dance anthropology and tap at Stockton University.

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