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This article is evidence-based, verified by Ashleigh Willis, a Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate.
Families of those with autism spectrum disorder want the best for their loved ones. Many carers spent a lot of time looking for the best and most effective therapies. For people with autism, it’s essential to try new treatments to help improve their quality of life.
People with autism all display unique characteristics. This means that treatment plans might need to include a variety of interventions. Including various types of therapy can help improve all aspects of their condition.
Creative and arts-based therapy has been around since the 1950s. However, in recent years these types of treatment have risen popularity. This has been propelled by new and innovative methods being invented by therapists. These creative tools have the ability to meet the diverse needs of people with autism. These types of therapies are also appealing because they are easily adapted to each person.
People with autism face a few core problems. These include motor skills, repetitive behaviors, emotional regulation, communication, and social skills. These can be difficult to treat. But, a unique dance/movement therapy approach may be one way to help with some of these issues.
What is dance movement therapy?
Movement dance therapy is a form of creative therapeutic intervention. The intervention is led by a qualified therapist. Dance movement therapy aims to assess the needs of an individual with autism. The treatment also aims to harness the power of movement for therapeutic benefit.
Unlike an exercise or dance class, the focus of dance therapy is not the outcome. Dance therapy doesn’t aim to teach highly choreographed routines. Instead, the goal of each session is to develop motor skills and relieve stress. Each session also seeks to allow the exploration of emotion and foster non-verbal communication skills.
As is the case with many expressive therapies, each program of dance therapy is tailored to the needs of the individual. This means that each therapy session will look different. Sessions will be various lengths and occur at a frequency that best suits the patient. Dance therapy may be a long- or short-term intervention. This tailoring will often happen in collaboration with the parent or carer of a person with autism. Sometime the therapist will also talk to the patients’ doctor or healthcare providers.
Dance movement therapy also relies on a good rapport between patient and therapist. The therapist must establish a strong bond and a trusting relationship with the person they are working with. Expressive therapies always work best when there is a robust patient-therapist connection.
During therapy sessions, therapists will observe the movement and body language of the person with autism. Meetings usually include a wide variety of activities and exercises based around movement. Therapy sessions can take place in a one-to-one or in a small group environment.
Dance and movement therapy is universally helpful across a variety of autism patient populations. People with autism of all ages can take part in dance therapy. Furthermore, it can be catered to all condition severities.
What does a dance therapy session look like?
Dance therapy will look different for each individual. However, all therapeutic interventions will include some amount of patient movement assessment. Therapists will observe the natural movement of the person with autism. By doing this, therapists can understand the range and types of motion a person has. They can also assess body language, repetitive behaviors, and level of motor skills.
Dance movement therapy sessions will follow a defined structure. This structure is helpful for people with autism who can become overwhelmed by disorganization. Despite being structure, each session is ‘client-led’. The therapist will aim to let the patient guide the types of activities they engage in; this means that the therapy session will evolve with the desires of the participant.
Dance movement therapy includes a structured range of activities and dance/movement exercises. Therapists have become incredibly creative with these. Nowadays, there are a vast amount of different operations available. There are some popular and conventional methods used across many types of dance therapy sessions:
Sometimes dance therapists will engage patients with a ‘movement metaphor’ or prop. This external object can help the individual to demonstrate a challenge, achievement, or emotion. Expressing themselves through objects can sometimes be more comfortable than verbal communication. It can also make dealing with tough emotions easier. This is also an excellent intervention for those who are non-verbal.
People with autism engage in stereotypic, repetitive behaviors. Therapists may sometimes incorporate rhythmic movement into the session. Dance and movement therapy sessions often include jumping. This type of action can improve mood and ease conditions such as depression.
Mirroring of movement is a powerful way to engage non-verbally. It is particularly useful when working with patients who have autism. The therapist may reflect the action of a participant. In a group setting, participants may mirror each other. It’s thought that this type of ‘matching’ or ‘echoing’ activity can foster feelings of empathy. This type of exercise can allow participants to see a reflection of themselves and their movement. This reflection is thought to provide validation to what they are feeling.
Authentic expression without words 🩰
These activities help participants engage with their thoughts and emotions. Through the form of movement, participants can begin to express themselves more easily. For people with autism who are non-verbal, this can provide a powerful way to communicate without having to use formal language. This provides benefits to the individual and also their families. Communicating through movement can allow carers to understand the needs of their loved ones.
Dance movement therapy can also help participants gain other vital skills. In particular, people with autism can learn how to respond appropriately to the movement and communication of others. The sessions also develop a deep-rooted form of internal trust. This helps participants to trust their abilities and listen to their inner thoughts.
Group therapy sessions work toward helping individuals engage with each other. They also foster meaningful moments of communication. This type of work can be especially useful when trying to build social skills in people with autism. In older patients, such as teenagers and adults, these types of sessions can help to relieve feelings of isolation or loneliness. Group therapy sessions can allow these patient groups to have a sense of being understood and belonging to a community.
In some cases, parents of children can also be involved in dance movement therapy sessions. These types of courses help to build quality bonds and relationships between parents and children. These sessions enable parents and children to connect and communicate in new ways. Connecting in a therapy-based environment helps relieve anxiety and makes children feel safe.
This can be equally beneficial for both children and parents. Dance movement therapy helps reduce stress related to communication for both parties. Furthermore, for parents of children who are non-verbal, it can allow them to gain new insight into their child. This gives parents a better feeling of ‘knowing’ their child and provides a better understanding of their needs.
Benefits of dance/movement therapy for autism
Therapists and caregivers report a variety of benefits of dance movement therapy for people with autism. At the moment, scientific evidence lags behind these reports. More research needs to be conducted to support all of these claims. However, there are some recent studies that have confirmed some dance movement therapy benefits. Moreover, as science progresses, we may be able to verify more of the gains. Here’s what science has told us so far:
- Dance movement therapy helps to build independence and leadership skills. A study published in 2020 showed that dance movement therapy could be beneficial to a child’s sense of ‘agency.’ In this study, a dance movement therapy program was implemented in a school for children with autism. After the therapy, teachers reported that children had independence and leadership skills.
- Dance movement therapy may improve mental well-being and cognitive ability. In 2019, researchers reviewed a number of research studies on dance movement therapy. They showed the most considerable benefits related to improvements in mental well-being. Depression and anxiety were substantially decreased after dance movement therapies. Other studies highlight that cognitive abilities are modestly improved by dance movement therapy.
- Dance movement therapy can aid in interpersonal skills. A few studies have reported improvements in interpersonal skills in people who take part in dance movement therapy. This appears to be helpful for both children and adults with autism. While these results are encouraging, many of these studies included low numbers of participants. Therefore, it can be challenging to draw a concrete conclusion, but the evidence looks positive.
- Imitation and mirroring activities improve social skills in people with autism. At the moment, there are only two unbiased studies that report these effects. However, in both studies, the evidence looks clear.
- It’s unclear whether motor skills are actually improved by dance movement therapy. Some studies do report benefits to motor abilities as a result of the treatment. A recent study also reported improvements in repetitive and compulsive behaviors. These benefits need further investigation because the effects are quite small and may be unreliable.
It’s important to note that there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of research conducted in dance movement therapy. Over time, researchers may reveal more benefits regarding the treatment. Most importantly, there have been no negative effect of dance movement therapy reported. If you’ve seen improvement in someone with autism after the sessions, a lack of research should not discourage you from going again in the future.
Who are dance movement therapists?
Dance therapists are qualified professionals. All dance therapists hold a Master’s degree in dance movement psychotherapy.
In the UK, these qualifications are accredited by the Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy UK (ADMP UK). Moreover, before practicing, every dance therapist must be registered with this organization. Unlike other creative arts-based therapies, dance movement therapists aren’t currently regulated by the Health & Care Professions Council.
In the US, a Master’s degree is still required. Therapists will instead be accredited and registered with the American Dance Therapy Association.
Dance movement therapists will also have undergraduate degrees in subjects like drama, psychology, dance, or physiology. Sometimes, dance therapists may have undergraduate degrees in medicine or nursing.
Dance movement therapists are all highly-trained in theory and practical work. All therapists have a good understanding of anatomy, psychotherapy, psychology, and movement observation.
If you’re thinking of trying dance therapy for yourself or for someone you love, finding the right therapist is essential. Therapist-patient relationships appear to be critical for the success of dance movement therapy. It’s worth putting some time into researching and meeting therapists before engaging in any treatment plans.
Dance movement therapy is a relatively young therapeutic intervention. This means that science hasn’t yet been able to assess exactly how it works or what the benefits are. However, many parents and carers sing the benefits of this type of therapy for people with autism. Dance movement therapy may offer a unique perspective to complement a pre-existing treatment program.
Ashleigh Willis is a final year Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow. Her research investigates the genetic and environmental contributors to mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions. Ashleigh has built research collaborations with McGill University and received specialist training at the Centre for Neuroscience at Montreal General Hospital, McGill University Health Centre. She is also an active member of the Society for Neuroscience. Ashleigh holds an Honours in Psychology, an MRes in Neuroscience, and is fascinated by the neuronal circuits which make us who we are. Ashleigh is passionate about providing a deeper understanding of mental health conditions and sharing an accurate and de-stigmatizing message through talks for organizations such as TEDx, Pint of Science, and the Scottish Funding Council.