This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed.
Certain questions will arise if you, or someone you know, has a child with autism. One of these questions will be whether or not autistic babies dance.
Autistic babies have the ability to dance, but they don’t usually do so. However, it is common for children with ASD to perform repetitive movements like flapping their hands or clenching their fists. These motions can often be misinterpreted as dancing.
Most children will instinctively move to music, using it as a form of communication. For autistic babies, communication like this does not come naturally. Read on to learn more about the relation between autistic babies and dance and how dance can be used as a beneficial therapy.
Dance in Babies
Many babies seem to have an affinity for dance. Certain types of music can trigger movements in young children that are undeniably considered dancing, even if the motions don’t have a traditional structure.
According to a study from the University of York, “researchers have discovered that infants respond to the rhythm and tempo of the music and find it more engaging than speech.” This study found that the key component of music that babies responded to was the beat, not the melody or harmony.
From five months old to two years in age, the babies naturally followed the music’s beat. They would sway and move, attempting to go along with the tempo. The more in-sync they became with the rhythm, the more the children smiled.
Babies often use dance like this to connect with others. A baby grooving to music will usually garner attention from adults, making them the center of attention. Parents and grandparents quickly clap along to the music, smiling and encouraging the baby’s movements. All of this attention rapidly overwhelms a child with ASD, and they can react negatively, associating dancing with something they don’t enjoy.
Autistic Children and Dance
While some autistic babies may dance, these children are likely to do so on their own. These children don’t often take part in shared experiences involving sounds. These shared experiences are also known as “joint attention,” the act in which two or more individuals focus on the same thing as a way of connection.
Children and infants with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) usually have an aversion to social interactions, like joint attention. They often don’t respond to their name being called and don’t participate in activities like dancing with other people. If an autistic baby were to dance, they would likely be doing so independently of anyone else in the room.
Communication challenges in children with ASD can manifest in many ways:
- Lack of eye contact
- Inability to share toys
- Playing alone instead of with others
- Taking things without asking permission
- Lack of pointing out objects for discussion
- Disinterest in parent’s emotions
- Disliking excessive attention
Some autistic babies may find movements that they like to make on their own, instead of with other people, though these motions usually have nothing to do with music.
Babies With ASD Flapping Hands
Why do autistic children flap their hands? This repetitive motion is something that is known as “stimming” or self-stimulation. Almost everyone in the world has preferred stimming behaviors. Some people crack their fingers, scratch their chin, or bite their lips. You might pick at your cuticles or twirl your ring. These are all examples of stimming.
For autistic children, stimming motions can be quite large and carry on for extended durations.
- Flapping hands
- Snapping fingers
- Clenching fists or flicking fingers
- Jumping and hopping
- Walking on tiptoes or pacing
While someone without ASD will notice when people have an adverse reaction to their stimming (you probably don’t bite your nails in public), individuals with autism have no sense of socially inappropriate stimming.
A child with ASD might spin or flap their hands for upwards of 20 minutes without realizing that it is an odd thing to do. When observing these motions for the first time, you may think that the child is dancing. However, the child is simply performing a self-stimulation tactic, which usually helps them cope with a challenging situation.
Stimming is a way for those with autism to express frustration, calm themselves down, distract themselves from an overwhelming situation, or feel comfortable in a new place. What can be confusing is that when children with ASD dance, many of these same motions may appear.
Benefits of Dancing With Autistic Children
Many autistic children enjoy dancing, though this often occurs after infancy. As children with autism are more exposed to the world and become more comfortable with auditory sounds, they can often enjoy jumping and dancing to music.
Children with ASD can also learn that they can safely express some of their confusing emotions through dance. If the techniques they’ve learned through stimming can be directed toward dance, they can use these same motions in a more socially-acceptable way of self-soothing.
While dancing with a child with ASD might never have the fixed-step of a learned dance, it is a wholly intrinsic action that expresses what the child is feeling at the time.
DMT therapy is an alternative form of treatment that is extremely beneficial to children with autism. DMT, which stands for Dance/Movement Therapy, is a “psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual.”
While all of these areas sound beneficial, it’s the social integration that is particularly healthy for a child with autism. Through DMT, autistic children can learn to communicate through dance instead of finding it overwhelming. Rather than “perform” for the adults in their life, DMT allows autistic children to move alongside others without being pressured to speak or make eye contact.
In this way, DMT offers a fun way for children with autism to relate to other people. Many autistic children enjoy other’s company; they simply don’t know how to communicate traditionally. Some DMT sessions may also invite parents to join in, helping caregivers to discover a way to connect with their often-distant child.
Dance/Movement Therapy is not a choreographed routine; instead, it is a free-flowing session involving groups or one-on-one treatments. DMT is one of many behavioral treatments that are available to children with autism.
DMT is an excellent place to start with your autistic child. Raising your child’s exercise level and helping them release pent-up emotions can benefit their level of focus.
Alongside DMT, more cognitive therapies can be applied. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy used for autistic children that focuses on learning and behavior instead of physical activity.
ABA therapy can improve oral communication and written language skills. It can also increase focus levels, memory, and learning abilities. Through repeated sessions, ABA treatment can decrease troubling behaviors and equip autistic children with tools to communicate.
Unfortunately, ABA therapy can be costly. To help offset these treatment costs, you should consider investing in a health insurance plan for autism. These plans may cover the costs of expensive treatments like Applied Behavior Analysis, and some may even have coverage for alternative therapeutics like Dance/Movement Therapy.
Autistic babies don’t often dance on their own. Children with ASD usually have aversions to sounds, like dialogue and music. However, of the two, music is much more welcome than speech. What autistic babies do enjoy doing is stimming. These are self-stimulation motions that can soothe and settle a child with ASD. Often expressed as hand flapping, spinning, or jumping, these activities can easily be misconstrued as dancing.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD, holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.
- Autism Speaks: Applied Behavioral Analyses
- Nicole Reinders: Dancing with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Mixed Methods Investigation
- Healthline: Stimming
- Michael’s Mum: 9 Signs of Early Autism
- Spectrum: Autistic toddlers do not tune in to sounds with others
- Milne Publishing: Music: Fundamentals and Educational Roots in the U.S.
- Science Daily: Babies Are Born To Dance