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make your day dance

Dancing – and constantly growing — with autism

March 31st, 2010 · 10 Comments · Tags: ····

OK, so today has been my days for multiple appointments: doctors, dentist, Apple one-to-one, exercise, lecture. And in between, in the fractional hours when it’s easier to stop at a cafe than to drive home, I’ve been collecting my thoughts…

Next week I’ll start my 7th month of teaching dance to 16 students with autism, without the help of extra time for planning or professional development. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way, with me grateful for every stray scrap of advice and inspiration that’s come my way.  Thanks especially to a small email network of colleagues who are venturing along the same path, as well as a couple good books (by Temple Grandin & Ellen Notbohm).

I work with two classes of 8 students, one with 1st-3rd graders and the other with kindergarten-1st graders. The two classes are so different ~ the older group having developed some skills in verbal & visual communication, while the younger group are just learning to communicate!

So, where have we gone in our explorations…?  The older group can venture in many directions now, each child in his or her own way.  What keeps us going best is the usual delicate balance between familiar routines, new & exciting props, and gradual challenges.

Explorations that have succeeded and continue to grow include:

  • The BrainDance: First thing each day we progress through the coordination patterns of the BrainDance, often using the prop of the day (foam bats, stretchy bands, body bags).
  • Taking turns: We use short foams bats as clappers and have clapping conversations one-on-one. Depending on the child, I still say “my turn/your turn,” or I ask the child to initiate the conversation, or the child responds to my initiation.  None of the students need an instructional assistant to guide their hands anymore, and one boy is very adept at copying my rhythm. They also take turns on…
  • Following a pathway: They’ve progressed from picking up the plastic marker spots and flapping them against the floor to stepping on or over each spot on the way across the floor. I’ve added hula-hoops-in-stands for crawling through along the way, and lately they’ve been practicing jumping over cardboard boxes (instead of stomping on them).
  • Beach balls: All but two of the kiddos have learned to blow up and deflate their own beach ball – and are motivated to do it even when it’s hard and takes awhile!  Once the beach balls are inflated, we do the BrainDance, a Freeze Dance, solo toss-and-catch, one-on-one toss-and-catch (with me… not with each other so far), solo dribbling with our feet, and toss-through-a-hoop or into-a-bucket.
  • Foam bats: BrainDance, Clapping Conversations (see Taking turns above), rhythmic patterns with music.
  • Body sox:  Boy, are these ever a hit! They’ve all learned to lay them out to insert their feet like a sleeping bag. Using the bags, we’ve explored body parts (feeling them push from inside the bag), levels, shapes, smooth&sharp energy, and stationary/(carefully!) traveling moves. At first, I taught them to keep their head out, but as they’ve grown familiar with the body sox, I let them choose — head in or out.  The kids are even getting used to folding them when we’re done.
  • Hullabaloo: This is an extension of an electronic game one of their teachers had. Instead of the little spot-markers in the game, we use brightly colored plastic circles, and instead of the electronic directions (that are fast and hard-to-understand), I call & demonstrate different ways to travel from one color-spot to another, using whatever concept I’m emphasizing for the day (body parts, locomotor skills, levels, directions, shapes…).
  • Percussion instruments: We practice starting & stopping on cue (stopping is a vague concept for some of them!), beating a match-the-words rhythm (“Pizza, I like pizza, pepperoni pizza, and cheese!” with “shhh” and a “quiet” gesture of a finger to the  lips on pauses between the words), and taking turns playing solos ~~ as well as let-it-rip play-as-you-like intervals.
  • Yoga: Using pictures, we have a progression that starts standing and ends with the “Do Nothing Doll” ~~ with each of them lying down while I circulate to gently lift and shake their relaxed arms as a way of saying goodbye each day.

We all still suffer some from Carter’s screaming tantrums whenever things don’t quite follow his expectations (some weeks it happens every day), or Aldrin’s obsession with aggravating Spencer by touching & poking him.  But each week we work together now I’m delighted to see their improvement – with gratitude for the consistent support of their instructional aids (always with us) and the work of their classroom teacher — it’s great to see them dance & grow!

10 Comments so far ↓

  • Deborah Robson

    Wonderful to hear of the specific progress. This is huge!

  • Pat Parker

    Hi Meghan and others,
    It is great to read the types of activities your are doing and having success with. My group of eight boys seven autistic are progressing well too with some noteable breakthroughs.
    We too suffer with those bad days and screaming fits – only one of them doing that and he is starting to come along. Using the BrainDance DVD has proven to be the best starting point for these low functioning autistic children – they seem to focus on the TV really well and love the nursery rhymes. Jerry is learning to copy someone else’s movement. And he loves to sing the good by song we do at the end of our sessions – full eye contact and a big smile!
    Dagmawi has recently begun to talk more, with some surprising statements like “Be Good”. He also was successful in pe class with jumping a long rope and jumping repeatedly a spinning rope… we call it helicopters – a quoit tied to a skipping rope and one child spins it in a circle while others jump when it passes by them. The smile on his face when he jumped that rope and the celebration of all the other kids brought tears to my eyes.

    The coordination, judgement and visual tracking required to to this are considerable and his success speaks to the time we have devoted this year to eye tracking and focusing. I am convinced that eye tracking is a key to moving forward developmentally for these students.
    I also watched his eyes follow a moving ball recently… first time…

    Another student a rather large autistic boy succeded in “pumping” on a swing for the first time. Getting himself swinging. – we have spent the previous three months working on core strength and push pull patterning ( yield and push to reach and pull) – no coincidence there.
    Same student finally sang a reply to me in the goodbye song we do, rather than echoing.
    Small things but huge steps for these children.
    We are also working on socializing – inviting a guest from their class to join us in our gym time on Fridays – rolling ( a soft knobbly ball) to a partner – following and leading, sashaying and wash the dishes dry the dishes tun the dishes over ( join hands, swing left, right then turn around keeping hands joined).
    I find rhymes and little verbal sing songs to be extremely effective in getting their attention and in helping them remember and do movement patterns.

    And for just getting started, waiting until they are all focused and ready to start never seemed to work so now I just say one, two, three. As soon as I start to count they focus on what we are going to do. ( too simple)

    We keep moving forward — this month is left right awareness – body half stuff, and I want to begin using yoga poses – pictures and poems.

  • megrm

    Thank you, Pat! More great ideas… I love the spinning jump rope & will give it to my PE colleague this week! And I totally agree about eye tracking — activities that help them focus are so essential. Your goodbye song sounds great — can you share it?! Thanks for being there!

  • Pat Parker

    Hi all,
    We all sit in a close circle and I go around the circle singing to each child. Encouraging eye contact. A touch on shoulder or knee helps.
    The good bye song goes..
    ” Good bye __Jerry (student’s name)___”
    “Good bye Ms. Parker”
    “It’s nice that you were here.”
    “I’m glad that you were here.”

    Use any tune that rolls off your lips – sing songy rhythm is important.
    The “I’m glad that you were here” is often accompanied by spontaneous hugs goodbye.

    Our opening for class,”Feet First”, routine is sitting in a circle with legs extended & bare feet.
    The sing song for foot exercises is..
    Flex you feet and point your feet, flex your feet and point your feet, flex your feet and point your feet and wave hello!( wave with your feet!)
    Scrunch your toes, and spread your toes, scrunch your toes and spread your toes, scrunch your toes and spread your toes and clap hooray!
    ( clap bottoms of feet together) – always gets laughs the first few times.
    Then we do tickle toes where we all try to tickle each others feet ( on the bottom)with our toes. Tactile stim..

    We then proceed through the BrainDance patterns using a series of rhymes I created. The movements are designed to give on the floor experiences in each pattern. I felt they were ready to move on from the DVD rhymes and be introduced to some new challenges.
    This is a bit involved to describe so I’ll leave it for another time…
    I have it on video but need parent permission to post it ( not that I know how to do that yet!!!)
    Hope you find these ideas helpful.
    PS I’m liking this blogging thing!!!!

  • megrm

    Thanks again, Pat!!! And for the hello, feet routine! If you get permission for the video, I’ll try to help you figure out how to post it. I would love to post videos, but so far the permission thing has me stopped! I’d rather make a guest-blog out of that, so people could access it more easily… if I have time, may I copy your comments sometime to a guest post? Again, so people who are searching for ideas related to dance & autism can find them more easily.

  • Pat Parker

    No problem copying my remarks to the guest post.
    I’ll keep you posted on the video stuff and when life slows down a little I’ll try to just describe the moves and give you the rhymes.

    I’m doing district dance festival this week – three nights and have a group dancing – twenty five grade two – five very excitable girls!! They are awesome though. Then I’m off to Salt Spring Island for a weekend of folk dancing. Have been looking forward to this for awhile!

  • megrm

    Have a wonderful time dancing! Much deserved after mounting a performance with 2nd graders…

  • Pat Parker

    Hi Meghan and others,
    An update on the video of “Ms. Parker’s braindance.”
    I have made a DVD of it. Sorry no progress with the permission to post but I will get on it.
    The neat thing is the kids really love it. They prefer to work with the DVD rather than me live!! And they love seeing themselves on TV.
    This does allow me to observe them more closely and to me more hands on in supporting them with movements they are having difficulty with.

    Progress with Jerry – the newest and youngest of our group – he is now joining in for longer sessions before the stimulation is too much and he looses it! And he is actively copying actions of several parts of our brain dance that he has never done before.
    Our strategy with him was to do several times a week with his aid and Anne’s BrianDance dvd on his own to learn to focus on the TV and follow along. He then joins ours small group two or three times a week for short times.
    Seems to be working.
    We are moving into focusing on Body half patterning – presenting some challenges for one or two of the kids — am puzzling this one out – any suggestions out there. We do crocodiles – belly crawling but some of them are obviously still in upper lower patterning – can’t get them to engage their leg. They can do a standing flexion of left and right side – I call this one puppets on a string– Standing on one foot balancing – big challenge — we will keep going with these exercises and see what develops.

    The year is drawing to a close, and we look forward to increasing enrollment in our school, all day kindergarten – three full ks and a K-1 .. big shift in our demographic. If we stay true to pattern there will be a number of undiagnosed autistic children arrive with this group. We also seem to get lots of ESL students arriving who exhibit “autistic like” behaviors but I’m beginning to suspect some of that may be stress and anxiety related. No English, new culture, totally inexperienced in school context and often “only kids”. Lots of factors to deal with.


    PS Salt Spring was awesome – Bulgarian dance is a challenge for body and brain!! The teacher was amazing and dancing to a live “folk” band was a new and delightful experience!

  • megrm

    Thanks so much for the update, Pat! The idea of the DVD & the kids seeing themselves sounds great! I could maybe manage such a thing in my older class, where the kids follow along well enough to be able to see themselves participating!
    Also I appreciate details on Jerry, cause that’s what it comes down to — each student is such an individual. Which is why it’s discouraging that you might not be able to have the one-on-one time next year!
    Thanks so much for keeping in touch! Your ideas & support have really helped this year!

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