Dance and movement therapy focus on a child’s functioning that is concerned with body awareness, rhythm and timing, and motor coordination. In doing so, it addresses the early correlations and difficulties exhibited in motor and social functioning in a child with autism. The importance of focusing on the developmental links of motor and social deficits as early as possible cannot be stressed enough because of “the cascading effects they have on continuing development” (Martin, 2014). In the same breath, it is essential to help those at risk and diagnosed with autism to evade feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration as a result of difficulties in communicating. There exist many kinds of interventions; dance and movement therapy is just one of many options.
Engaging in physical activity is usually challenging for children with autism because of “poor motor functioning, atypical social development, and other behavioral manifestations” (Scharoun, Reinders, Bryden & Fletcher, 2014). They are at a higher risk of inactivity and are not as physically active as typically developing children. Research on interventions concerned with physical activity is limited. These have been observed to improve behavior: decreased repetitive behaviors and an increase in social interaction and overall physical fitness. Creative movement and dance are a practical option for children with autism. The focus of this article will be to understand how dance and movement therapy helps a child with autism.
Dance encourages an inclusive environment; (an inclusive environment is that that creates a supportive environment for all learners, including those with learning differences by building a more responsive learning environment) which enables a “child, regardless of physical abilities, to be expressive in a nonverbal manner” (Scharoun et. al., 2014). Here, the child can explore and include “the physical self as a functioning part of the whole social being” (Scharoun et. al., 2014). Dancing and movement are natural means of communication, providing nonverbal means of expression for the child who has difficulty in communicating.
Dance and movement therapy actively engage the brain through the body, using "a process that influences physical and psychological functions” (Scharoun et. al., 2014). It is a holistic therapy, giving physical, cognitive, and social benefits to participants. The physical includes increased balance, muscular tone and strength, flexibility, and spatial awareness. In terms of social benefits, it promotes the development of relationships. The cognitive benefits are vocabulary development, and it helps with the integration of the sensory-motor systems. It is for these reasons that dance movement therapy can contribute to treating neurological disorders like autism. It integrates both body and mind, and as it can thrive in the nonverbal aspect of communication, this therapy is appropriate for early intervention of a child with autism (Martin, 2014)
Dance and movement therapy are unique in that the therapist can fashion the intervention to meet the child's needs. Children with autism are generally distracted with off-task behaviors and feel uncomfortable in unpredictable and new situations. Hence, interventions are personalized to help the child feel safe and comfortable and, at the same time, encourage the child to be attentive and on-task. They also have a poor body image because of poor perceptual-motor integration. This therapy promotes increased body image by exploring and process-oriented learning, enabling the child to expand their movement repertoire. Therapists use techniques like music, props, mirroring, and eye contact to enhance the child’s body image. Music helps to increase attention span and helps them with motor planning and execution. Additionally, the mirroring technique is used as a tool to encourage social connectedness and improve imitation skills.
More importantly, this kind of intervention can potentially create a pathway for bringing together motor and social and communication functions that are affected in a child with autism. Research supports, including the body and relational experiences, for the development of the child’s brain and that such interventions can aid children with autism increase their capacity for social connectedness (Martin, 2014).
Scharoun, S. M., Reinders, N. J., Bryden, P. J. & Fletcher, P. C. (2014) Dance/Movement Therapy as an Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Am J Dance Ther, 36, 209- 228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10465-014-9179-0
Martin, M. (2014). Moving on the spectrum: Dance/movement therapy as a potential early intervention tool for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41, 545-553. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2014.10.003