Phillip Martin-Nelson, principal dancer of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who was diagnosed with severe autism, credits ballet with saving his life. Similarly, dance classes have been a driving force for Leon*, a 15 year old, high functioning, home schooled male, diagnosed as a young child, with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Two years ago, a physician specializing in eating disorders referred Leon to dance/movement therapy because he was refusing to eat. Previous experiences in verbal therapy had not been successful; if anything, they had made him leery of interacting with anyone other than his brothers, parents, and people associated with his dancing school.
Although Leon loved to dance, had been exposed to a range of styles, remembered combinations from session to session, and could mirror anything I did, he could not initiate movement, activate his low center, generate strong, direct movement, or make intentional use of the space around him. His ability to mirror – which seemed to be a kinesthetic analogue of echolalia – was so precise that I could always tell when I was out of alignment just by looking at him.
It became clear that no matter how well Leon executed a movement, he was often unable to connect to the pulse of the music, lacked a kinesthetic sense of his body boundary, and did not know how to use his breath to support his movement or maintain his stamina. He told me that his dance teachers often told him to focus on his hands. I could see why. The flow of his movement literally stopped at his wrists. That was the most obvious way of explaining his inability to sense his frame and project presence.
However, after two years of working together on movement qualities that dominate or develop during the first three years of life, much has changed. Leon’s eating disorder is not a major concern any more. He is able to use “home” (Fraenkel & Mehr, 2012, pp. 39-40) – the place on his body where he feels connected to himself on both the inhalation and the exhalation – as both a source of improvisation and affect regulation.
Leon has also learned how to (1) use kinesthetic sensing to visualize and embody his perception of the body boundary, and (2) reclaim his sense of the body boundary when he has lost his connection to it. In addition, Leon’s relationship to music has changed unexpectedly and dramatically. Once often ahead of or behind the beat, Leon can now initiate movements during our warm-up and improvise freely to music he has never heard before while also keeping the beat, even when it means sustaining a movement to align with an unusually slow ending or coda.
One would never know that Leon used to have trouble keeping the beat. He can even leap and do complex turns without losing the pulse. In contrast, strong movements that involve his low center, assertion, or the expression of negative affect are still a challenge. Making choices is something Leon avoids at all cost, and when asked to do so, he usually responds with a simple “I don’t know.” Yet, only two weeks ago, Leon was able to state clearly, and almost immediately, that he did not want his family to come into the studio for family dance/movement therapy. Unlike other places in the world, including his regular dance classes, Leon said in dance/movement therapy, “there is no pressure in the studio.”
Leon’s unwillingness to bring his family into dance/movement therapy seems positive at this stage of treatment; however, family sessions can free family members of children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. By working with programs grounded in dance/movement therapy (Iemolo, 2012), families have the potential to overcome unsatisfactory or defended modes of communication.
PHOTOGRAPHS: The above photographs are (1) of a man named Gene* and his sister, in a family DMT session, and (2) of Gene dancing with Michele Iemolo, a dance/movement therapy intern and creator of The Joint Attention, Movement, and Parents (JAMP) Program for Children with Autism. Gene, now deceased, lived in a group home as an orphaned adult and had no verbal language other than grunts and gestures. His diagnosis: Level 3 Autism.
Leon and Gene are on opposite ends of the spectrum – Gene with severe autism and Leon, who reads, writes fan fiction, and understands the somatic information he has acquired in dance/movement therapy, with high functioning autism. Yet, the two share the fundamental “deficits” (to borrow the term from the DSM-5) in social skills and emotional reciprocity that characterize Autism Spectrum Disorder – deficits dance/movement therapy addresses through an array of nonverbal and creative channels that emerge from dance’s innate capacity to heal.
Phillip Martin-Nelson said dance classes saved his life. Dance/movement therapy, or rather, “Dance Therapy with Dr. Dance” as Leon and his family refer to our work, has become Leon’s therapy of choice. Time now to build on the healing inherent in dance and to make dance/movement therapy the therapy of choice for more children and adults struggling with the challenges associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
* Names and identifying details have been altered.
** Family members and photographer have given ADTA permission to publish the photographs. Photos taken by Tom Olsen.
***Michele Iemolo, M.S., Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Dance/Movement Therapy Intern and creator of The Joint Attention, Movement, and Parents (JAMP) Program for Children with Autism, and a student at Kinections℠, will be receiving her PsyD. in June. She will be filing for her R-DMT in 2016.
Fraenkel, D. & Mehr, J. (Fall 2012). The power of breath. Conscious Dancer, 20, 39-40.
Hackney, P. (2002). Making connections: Total body integration through Barteinieff Fundamentals. New York: Routledge.
- Iemolo, M. (2012). The Joint Attention, Movement, and Parents (JAMP) Program for children with autism: Establishing joint attention using dance/movement therapy. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Carlos Albizu University, Doral FL.
- Prisco, J. (Dec.28, 2014). Phillip Martin-Nelson, autistic principal of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, on how dancing saved his life. Classicalite.