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Autism and Dance: Does Dancing Benefit Autistic Kids?

October 11, 2022


Dance has always been known as a universal form of self-expression. The benefits are numerous. For kids with autism, dance can be a therapeutic resource.

Autism and Dance: Does Dancing Benefit Autistic Kids? https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/dance-movement-benefits/

There are many studies exploring the benefits of dance, for both neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals, and thus there are many dance programs geared towards those with special needs to encourage them to break out of their comfort zones and try something new.

The positive effects of dance can benefit kids and adults alike. This article examines autism and dance as a form of expression, the benefits of dance for kids with autism spectrum disorder, and the effectiveness of dance therapy. We take a look at the emotional aspects taught in dance and the increase in cognitive skills and psychological well being.

Dance as a form of expression

Dance can be a major resource for children with autism, especially those who are nonverbal. Dance uses the body as a way of communicating instead of the use of words. Depending on the movement, the body can tell a story that the child might not be able to express any other way. From sadness, frustration, or love, with dance, you are teaching your child how to express themselves in a way they will enjoy, without the expectation of trying to verbalize their feelings.

For many, dance becomes a safe space where the individual can get away from the world and use their body to express all the pent-up emotions they need to let out. Many kids find freedom in dance they can’t find elsewhere. With the daily challenges children with autism face, finding freedom with movement might be the perfect tool to help your child be themselves without pressure from the outside world.

Taking a dance class is a good way for your child to be part of a community with individuals who share the same love for dance. There are many dance programs geared specifically toward kids with special needs, spending an hour dancing with others who face the same challenges can be very therapeutic with the added benefit of having fun.

That saying, joining a dance class with neurotypical individuals can be just as beneficial and fun. Spending time with kids who are non-autistic can be bolstering and allows others to learn acceptance in what is supposed to be a safe and enjoyable space.

Dance and autism

Besides being a form of emotional expression and an outlet for frustration and aggression, dance has many positive health benefits. 

Dance affects behavior, focus, verbal communication, social skills, and motor skills. Taking dance lessons at a young age is beneficial as it helps develop motor skills and increase body awareness in kids. Dance requires coordination and rhythm that increases over time, helping the body move fluidly and increasing confidence in children with balance issues. Enrolling your child in a dance program encourages more social interaction. Children are more likely to interact socially when they are having fun, they are likely to try and communicate their happiness and excitement along with their peers.

The authors of a study on the Rhythm and timing in autism: learning to dance reveal: “Speech-language pathologists, providers of assistive and alternative communication supports, and various types of music therapists also emphasize the use of rhythm and timing as scaffolding to build social and communicative interactions.”

Many studies suggest music and movement bring easier and more honest expression in autistic children than a board game or a sit-down game would incite. Some children with spectrum disorders cannot discern body language, facial expressions, or any kind of social cues. With dance, the dancers are taught to express sadness when the music slows down or enjoyment when the music increases in tempo. 

Being taught to mirror these expressions allows students on the autism spectrum to pick up on emotional cues in others. If a program is geared specifically for kids with special needs, the teachers will have had previous experience working with such children and would have the knowledge and patience needed.

In an interview with the New York Times, for an article examining dance and autism, Dr. Anjana Bhat, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware stated: “Parents report that their children with autism enjoy musical activities and show more positive interactions with others through greater eye contact, smiling and speaking after engaging in a dance and music program.”

In addition to providing physical feedback to the brain, movement also provides sensory feedback. Through this system, children learn about their bodies, movements, and music through dance. In dance you are taught to mirror movements, to synchronize with others, and to move to a beat, improving rhythm. This improves focus and observation, increasing self-awareness and that of others around them. 

A research study on The Synchronicity Hypothesis of Dance by Julia Basso, Rachel Rugh, and Medha Satyal states that: “humans dance to enhance both intra- and inter-brain synchrony. We outline a neurocentric definition of dance, which suggests that dance involves neurobehavioral processes in seven distinct areas including sensory, motor, cognitive, social, emotional, rhythmic, and creative.”

The study also states: “The findings presented here support our hypothesis that we engage in dance for the purpose of intrinsic reward, which as a result of dance-induced increases in neural synchrony, leads to enhanced interpersonal coordination. This hypothesis suggests that dance may be helpful to repattern oscillatory activity, leading to clinical improvements in autism spectrum disorder and other disorders with oscillatory activity impairments.”


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Dance Therapy

Dance/ movement therapy (DMT) is described as a holistic psychotherapy that uses dance and movement to support cognitive, social, physical, and emotional wellbeing.

In one of Autism Parenting Magazine’s previous posts on the benefits of dance/movement therapy, we mention that DMT is an effective intervention for conditions such as anxiety and developmental disorders like autism (in adults and children), depression, eating disorders, breast cancer, and many others. A dance/movement therapy program can enhance your quality of life, improve your self-image, and reduce mental health issues like anxiety and depression. A significant benefit of this therapy is its claim to healing negative symptoms that are associated with disorders.

DMT relies on the premise that movement is a language that we develop before birth, and that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected. Movement is a primary mode of intervention and a tool of assessment. Movements can be symbolic and can convey unconscious messages.

Dance/movement therapy is taught by a qualified dance therapist. The therapist creates a safe and dependable space for individuals to express themselves. The movements expressed can relay both conscious or unconscious feelings. These therapists assess the body language, facial expressions and non verbal cues that the body is expressing. Dance/ movement therapists essentially ‘listen’ to the movements and will tailor a course of treatment accordingly. 

Dance/movement therapy can be conducted individually or in groups. Different dance therapists will have different styles but they all adhere to certain rules and missions, such as, preventing, diagnosing, and treating health issues that affect the wellbeing of individuals.

With all the challenges neurodivergent kids face, especially whilst growing up in a world where things are always changing and intolerance is everywhere, dance/ movement therapy could be exactly what your child needs to feel grounded.

To end off

Growing up is hard enough without being different. For someone who will be facing challenges their whole lives it is important to have something to enjoy. Hobbies are important. Having something to look forward to at the end of the day is very important. For your child, dance can be that. Dance fosters passion and creates freedom in movement. Having to rely on your body to work in complete connection with your mind creates trust and confidence in your ability to move your body in the way you intend to. Dance is also a good way to foster interest in the arts and is an outlet for creativity and imagination.

As previously mentioned, the benefits of dancing are numerous. These include developed motor skills, an increase in social communication, better verbal communication, focus, and an increase in general wellbeing. If you enroll your child in dance classes, you might see major positive changes. 

Dance/movement therapy is quite different from regular dance classes as expressed before. There is no one-size-fits all therapy but children but, with the use of qualified dance therapists, you can be confident your child will be in good hands. 

References: 

Amos P (2013) Rhythm and timing in autism: learning to dance. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2013.00027/full

 Hollow.C.M.(2019, November 19) For Some Children With Autism, Dance Is a Form of Expression. The New York Times

www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/well/family/autism-children-dance.html

Basso, C.J., Satyal, K.M, Rough, R.(2021). Dance on the Brain: Enhancing Intra- and Inter-Brain Synchrony. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7832346/

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