Historically, dance has been used as a form of healing. In African culture, dance resonates across a variety of tribes to symbolize connection with a higher power and to bring people together in communities to honor the rights of passage, but have you heard of dance therapy for autism?
Of course, engagement through dance exists in cultures across the world. Dance styles such as contemporary, afro, and/or ballroom dancing are used as a form of movement to strike dialogue about certain topics, but also for expression—whether it is self-expression or community engagement. Dance serves as a medium to communicate through body language, with each movement or gesture being purposeful for the particular style.
Many dancers assert that dancing is a form of healing or therapy for them personally as it enables them to communicate their feelings and emotions through movement and body awareness. Dance is a connection between the body and the music; both these elements need to be in sync to achieve the catharsis intended through dance.
For these reasons (and more), dance therapy or movement therapy has evolved and become more and more popular. The use of dance in psychotherapy is reported to be especially useful to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or mental illnesses. This article will look at the use of dance/movement therapy (DMT) for autism and its benefits in this specific context.
What is dance or movement therapy?
Therapies such as art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, and dance/movement therapy (DMT) are often chosen by therapy clients because of their ability to offer a universal form of expression that does not require spoken language.
As the name suggests, dance/movement therapy is a form of art therapy that involves movement and dance. Given that DMT uses body expression or an embodied practice, it allows for nonverbal and universal means of expressing one’s psychological state. This, therefore, eliminates any form of cultural and social barriers and is particularly useful for children with autism who struggle with speech or language.
In addition, the therapeutic form of DMT is a unique mode of psychotherapy. It allows the client to articulate their unconscious issues, including those which are too painful to speak of verbally, by providing a medium that speaks through the body and offers distance. For children with autism especially, dance/movement therapy can offer great benefits as it accommodates both nonverbal and semi-verbal autistic children.
What is the core purpose of dance therapy?
The purpose of dance/movement therapy is to provide clients with a sense of vitality, joy, and overall wellbeing, especially for those suffering from mental health challenges such as depression. Clinically, DMT offers a range of benefits in the domains of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional integration. The physiological response benefits of DMT include the production of endorphins (chemical neurotransmitters in the brain which promote positive brain development), and actively engaging several parts of the mind.
Music is not a prerequisite of DMT but it is often used in therapy, depending on the therapist’s intervention strategy. Just like other types of art therapies, including drama therapy, DMT claims to play a key role in healing negative symptoms that form part of a disorder.
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Dance therapy for autism
Research by Koch, et al. (2019), found evidence that DMT is an effective intervention for conditions such as anxiety, developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (in both children and adults), depression, breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, eating disorders, elderly, at-risk youth, schizophrenia, stress, and several others.
Through DMT, many clients have experienced improved general wellbeing, greater quality of life, and body image, as well as seeing a reduction in clinical symptoms such as anxiety and depression across a variety of disorders including autism.
For autism spectrum disorder specifically, because DMT involves purposeful movement patterns and is closely associated with bodily sensations, it is exceptionally beneficial for autistic children as the method supports motor development, social interactions (as the therapeutic relationship between the child and therapist develops), social engagement, and overall building of their social skills (Koch, et al. 2019). All these benefits are accounted for by the effects of dance movement.
Art therapies such as dance/movement therapy have exceptional benefits in improving the wellbeing of individuals with autism as well as other conditions such as depression and anxiety.
When DMT is included as a form of clinical intervention for children on the autism spectrum, among other therapies such as occupational therapy or work with psychologists, it enables a holistic form of support.
Perhaps the best part of dance therapy for children with special needs is that it enables a universal form of communication not limited to verbal communication. It gives parents whose autistic children are nonverbal the piece of mind that there are therapies which cater to their child’s communication abilities.
Karkou, V., Aithal, S., Zubala, A., & Meekums, B. (2019). Effectiveness of Dance Movement Therapy in the Treatment of Adults With Depression: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analyses. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 936. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00936
Koch, S. C., Riege, R., Tisborn, K., Biondo, J., Martin, L., & Beelmann, A. (2019). Effects of Dance Movement Therapy and Dance on Health-Related Psychological Outcomes. A Meta-Analysis Update. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1806. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01806