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make your day dance

Getting acquainted: students with Autism

March 30th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Tags: ··

Not much time, but I must reply to a comment left on my blog…

“I will be teaching a dance class for children with Autism starting next week. There will be 6 kids ages 6-10. Honestly, I have been attempting to plan the first class, but unsure where to start. Some children are fairly high functioning and other face more challenges (one also is bi-polar).

I really am unsure how to stucture the class that will be 60 minutes long. Any advice would be most appreciated.”

Wow. Yes, that’s daunting. I remember when I started, with NO idea how to begin!

First, will you have assistant(s)? If possible, talk to them beforehand about the role you would like them to take — hands-on, helping students participate, modeling participation (in my case, the assistants had to run interference for awhile, as some of my students tried the doors, turned off the lights, pushed buttons on my computer, dumped out baskets of scarves & otherwise explored their new territory). If you can’t talk to them in advance, be ready to give suggestions on the spot. If there’s no planned assistance, try to find some for the first few classes while you get acquainted!

Second, prepare your space. Reduce distractions: put things away or cover them up. Last year I had 6 garbage bags that I would use to hood computers, tvs & projectors, and I taped cardboard over the light switches.

Third, plan a variety of activities to try. Until you have an idea of where your students are in the spectrum of Autism, avoid activities that require much turn-taking, any partnering, or group organization. Some early successes for me included:

  • find a video to do along with the kids — they are accustomed to focusing on tv/video & you can either model along with the video or help them participate. On advice from another dance educator, I used Anne Green Gilbert’s Brain Dance video — the nursery rhyme version. It kept their focus, and little by little I weaned them from the video to doing the exercises with me.
  • alternate activities that require them to focus with free-dance activities.  For example, do a pause dance where you start & stop moving with the music (you may be the only one starting & stopping for awhile). Then, give them hula hoops, put on some quiet music & let them explore for awhile — observing what they are doing with the hula hoops may give you some idea about their various skills & interests, as well as the range within the group.
  • use locations to help the group focus — I used a line of stools against one wall through most of last year as a home base. We would start there with some simple songs (“head-shoulders-knees&toes” & other kids songs) and then we would return to the stools mid-class for obstacle course work.
  • as one activity (late in the class), set up & teach them how to take turns on an obstacle course — use any items you can find for crawling under (a table), jumping on (a single-person trampoline is wonderful!), stepping through (hoops on stands).
  • find a book to read (good pictures, almost no words) — they sit on the stools while you read. Some pages can inspire a movement adventure in the space, returning to the stools for more reading.  Here are some books that have a clear picture & a word to inspire movement: Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Waddle! or Swing! or Gallop! by Rufus Butler Seder. You can easily create a sequence of movements from the pages, if your kids seem able to handle a sequence. My kids weren’t at first.
  • use visuals! Think in pictures — find/make/create simple pictures to communicate your activities. For example, I have pictures for each section of the nursery rhyme Brain Dance, I have pictures to indicate staying-on-the-spot vs. moving-in-the-general-space, and pictures for yoga shapes. Teachers of children with Autism often have computer software for producing pictures of almost anything, if you can just tell them what you want.

My before-school-time is up now; I need to take off. But I will try to add more soon — some details about suggestions above, as well as some encouragement about the fabulous progress we’ve made. Almost every day I meet with my children with Autism now, I am amazed, delighted & gratified at how far we have come!

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