When Beatrice, a 7-year-old with autism, first joined the adaptive dance class at Chamberlain Performing Arts in Plano, she wanted to talk about anything and everything when it was time to skip and chasse. But a year later, after being paired with Lauren Halverson, a Chamberlain Company dancer who volunteers her time, Beatrice (not her real name) can maintain her focus through an entire 45-minute dance class and is performing “at her full ability,” says Cassi MacQueen, who teaches the class as part of Chamberlain’s Shining Stars dance program. “She just wants to be a dance princess.”
Beatrice is one of a growing number of North Texas children with autism who are benefiting from programs that use movement and dance to develop social skills and open up their often-insular worlds. Through adaptive dance classes such as Chamberlain’s and dance and movement therapy by certified practitioners (Texas doesn’t license dance therapists yet, as do many states in the Northeast), children with autism can learn to move in new ways.
Chamberlain offers two weekly classes for children and young adults with special needs for $10 a class – walk-ins accepted – as part of its outreach programs. MacQueen has seen children with autism improve their physical fitness, increase their social capabilities, dance with a partner-volunteer and even perform in front of their parents.
Suzy Rossol Matheson, a certified dance/movement therapist and counselor in Dallas, has led dance therapy programs for children with autism for more than five years and has witnessed the benefits. Children get stuck in patterns, and dance teaches them to relax and not be as tense, she says. Matheson’s program, offered in small classes, is built on group experience to encourage socialization. Many of the dances require a partner – which is significant, because to a child with autism, linking arms with someone else can be terrifying. She uses scarves, Octabands and other props to encourage children who are reluctant to try new movements or touch other people. “We start on the floor with stretches and our toes touching to eventually standing up,” Matheson says. “I love to do the chicken dance because you have to do it with a partner, and we just do the same thing until it’s mastered.”
Dallas-based Dr. Carolyn Garver is a renowned researcher, international speaker on autism and director of the Autism Treatment Centers of America. She works with the severely autistic and has observed the benefits of dance therapy. “It’s calming and it gives another avenue for expression,” she says. “The structure and movement can be very helpful.” Lynn Moon Schellenberg has led dance therapy classes for Garver at the treatment center in Dallas for more than 15 years. “Students are able to use their creativity,” she says. “They are initiating their own movements, which is empowering for them because they’re used to being told no and don’t do that.”
Dance could be an enhancement to traditional therapy for a child with autism – and, as Garver notes, “Anyone can give it a try.”