Not too long ago I was on a dance forum where one teacher was begging for tips as her dance class now had 50% of students on the autistic spectrum. A few teachers gave suggestions but overall, not a lot of information was forthcoming. Coincidentally, a few weeks later I was on a belly dance forum and someone else asked about teaching people with autism but this time I was struck by how thorough the answers were. I was so impressed with Arlechina Verdigris’s suggestions I asked if I could turn her response into a short blog post but she went one better and wrote an entire piece on this very relevant topic and here it is – full of fantastic tips to help any dance teacher. Thank you so much Arlechina! ❤ Jade
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological condition that changes the communication and sensory pathways of the human mind. It makes it very difficult for children to learn to speak and interact with others in the ways that we have come to take for granted. By the time an autistic child becomes an adult they may be able to speak and go about life solo or they may be dependent upon caretakers. In going out into the world, many are forced to either participate with no adjustments made to accommodate their uniqueness or simply not partake in most activities because the sensory input can be too painful. Autism affects 1 out of every 68 children born in 2016, a number that has more than doubled since the early 1990’s. Some might be tempted to think that this is because we’ve become more aware of it and are actually catching it more frequently but that is not entirely the case. There really are more persons being born on the spectrum now than ever before and as they age up they will need to find acceptance. For us, that means we need to make a safe and inclusive environment in our classes and shows for them to participate and attend performances. Everyone knows someone on the spectrum, everyone has either a friend or a relative affected by autism and many reading this now are probably on the spectrum too. These are your students and fans, the children of your students, the siblings of your students, they are your audience. Autism may present unique challenges but these are nothing that cannot be overcome with a little creativity and patience–two fundamental principles of being an artist.
How to be an inclusive dance teacher!
If you are a dance instructor and you want to be inclusive of people who are on the spectrum but do not know where to begin, I have some suggestions! Many may feel that they want to be inclusive but don’t feel like it is their place to try to teach people who have a neurological condition that they don’t personally understand. Please abandon that thought process. Inclusivity is not segregation. Everyone can be an ally and those who have the patience and creativity to teach can also learn how to provide with an open mind.
What you need to understand foremost about Autism is that people on the spectrum experience the world differently. You cannot see, hear, smell, taste or feel half of what they are taking in at any given moment. To be a good dance instructor you will need to learn to control the environment and isolate the senses as much as you would isolate and layer parts of the body. Do not ask your students and audience to do this for themselves, they do not have nearly the control over the environment that you do. Their sensory input is not a switch that can be dimmed or turned off or on. You can make the biggest impact here and the actions you take will make the difference between participating and not.
- Try to limit the sensory input of the environment by reducing sound (cymbals, clapping, ululating), lights (mixing natural and unnatural light, flashing lights, bright lights), and smells (perfumes, incense or oils, using scented cleaners). These are the simplest micro-changes that you can make to the landscape and they make a big difference all together.
- If you usually have your students face a mirror, make sure that you are also facing it. This makes it easier to isolate where the student needs to be looking. Consider asking students to wear basic black in class while you wear blue or some other contrasting color. This reduces “background” color input and directs the focus towards the instructor.
- Try teaching by choreography rather than allowing just any music to play in the background. This connects a specific movement to a specific sound. It is easier for many to learn by pattern than by improvisation. ATS and ITS formats (without cymbals) can be really good for this if your student has an affinity for cues. Some will and some will not but it is an idea to try.
- Count! 1-8, 1-6 or whatever the beat might be. Reinforcing a numeric pattern is a fantastic mnemonic device. Ask your students to count silently with tongue clicks rather than counting with their lips as it can be very difficult to reprogram the body once that lesson has taken hold.
- Every student should be provided with the opportunity to succeed gloriously by playing to their natural strengths and interests and autistic students are no different. Some aspects of dance are better suited than others. A taxim set to to a singular slow instrument may be easier to follow than an orchestra. Whirling and spinning may provide a positive sensory experience by shifting the student’s balance in the inner ear. Working with fun sensory items such as wings and silky veils may be soothing and interesting to both participate in as well as watch.
- Do not expect or demand eye contact or physical contact in your instructional environment. No matter where your student is looking, they are probably paying attention the best way they are able. Invite the student to touch you if you feel that you need a tactile example but limit your touching with them unless you are invited.You may also suggest your students wear earplugs or sunglasses in your classes if they need them. They may have other adaptive or assistance gear that they prefer but it is good to initiate the conversation and let them know that such things are okay. Make sure your other students know why these items are being used and don’t allow them to make comments about their use. Let it be so normal that nobody thinks twice about it. (One of my students uses gum. Consider it a necessary therapy).
- Involve your other students and audience members by making them an active part of inclusion. Respect them by giving them the tools they need to be a good teammate. Show them how to be inclusive. Lead by example and don’t expect anything to be common knowledge. If you hear your students using inappropriate language (example: “That’s retarded.”), don’t let it continue. Nobody needs that.
- If you have a place in your studio that you can designate as a sensory calming area it would greatly help. These places are a retreat where students who are overstimulated can go and decompress for a little bit. Think “quiet, soft lit and comfortable.” Add a perpetual movement toy or something similar for those who need something to focus on for a little while. It can help to drown out painful stimuli.
- Remember to always listen to your Autistic students and peers and take their word above anything you read online or in a book. Trust that they know their own bodies. Be supportive and always reinforce supportive language. Be patient and always stay positive. Most of all, get ready to learn from them because they will change how you see and understand the world.
Things To Try:
**Blacklight dance party.
**Color themed dance parties.
**Waving excitedly or jazz hands instead of clapping and cheering.
**Spotlight solos (to watch and maybe participate in).
**Encouraging self-massage to get the body to move.
**Breathing exercises (with counting) as part of every cool down.
Professionally, Arlechina Verdigris is a historical dance ethnologist, choreographer, percussionist, author and vocalist who specializes in the arts and oral traditions from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Privately, she is the mother of two autistic children and the caretaker of a third autistic adult. Her daily life is structured around reshaping activities and instruction for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. She has been a guest speaker at the “Day of Dance for Autism” charity event benefitting the Tidewater Autism Society. She teaches music and dance to children both on and off the spectrum and has worked with autistic families to provide an inclusive
and cooperative dance environment where they can feel safe and participate fully.
You can find more of her writing in the following titles available on amazon.com:
The Ancient & Martial Dances
The Symbol Maker’s Companion
The Choreographer’s Notebook