I met Peter* in 1970, while earning my Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. Peter was a five-year-old, nonverbal boy who had been given the diagnostic label of Autism. He had come to the Thayer Lindsay Clinic for speech therapy and I was assigned to be his graduate student therapist. Before continuing, I believe it is important to share a bit of my history to illuminate the intertwined connection between movement and verbal communication that grounds my work as a dance/movement therapist, Autism Consultant, and Language Therapist.
In the early 70’s, Autism was defined as a psychological based disorder and was seen as a type of nonverbal Childhood Schizophrenia, with many faulting the mother for being cold and un-nurturing. Also, during this time, dance/movement therapy was a nascent field and there were no dance/movement therapy graduate schools. Those with Autism were treated primarily using behavioral methods and techniques. These methods didn’t work for me, yet as a graduate student, I initially felt obligated to use them. Then, I was invited to the first showing of Janet Adler’s film “Looking for Me;” it was shown at Emerson where she herself had been a speech therapy undergraduate. I was deeply moved and inspired by her work, so much so that she eventually became my dance therapy supervisor. When I started with Peter in the language clinic, using strict behavioral–operant conditioning methods, Janet’s film lived in me; it gave me permission to work in a way that was natural to me.
My initial work with Peter involved me trying to use those behavioral techniques I had learned. He would sit in a chair in the corner, a small table angled in front of him, enclosing him into a tight triangle of space. I sat across from him holding up a small rubber ball to stimulate the phoneme /b/ and a flashlight to stimulate the phoneme /l/. When he made an approximation of the sound, I was to put a poker chip into the metal cupcake pan on the table. When he got five chips in, he got an m & m.
Peter never got a piece of candy. He sat across from me screaming, flailing his hands, and banging his head on the wall behind him. I was instructed to bang the table with my hand, saying a loud and firm “NO!” to “extinguish” his behavior. When this was not feasible, I was told to put my head down on the table and “ignore” Peter’s outbursts. My “no’s” were recorded and critiqued by my supervisor, to determine their efficacy.
From the very beginning of my work with Peter, I had grave doubts. It seemed to me that he did not know where his body ended and the table began. I felt that asking him to look at my mouth, lips, and tongue positions was not appropriate, and that even if he could produce the /b/ and /l/ sound, it would not provide him with a communication system from which to communicate in his world.
What did make sense was for me to learn his language. I see communication as an interactive continuum that encompasses the non-verbal and verbal aspects of expression. Peter was naturally expressing himself in sound and movement; I interpreted this as the underpinnings of communicative intent, the desire to use language to form relationship. And so it began. Against the rules and in secrecy, I began to learn Peter’s language. When the coast was clear, we would remove all furniture and muffin tins; I would bring in sensory items, bubbles and bells /b/, legos and lotion /l/, soft stuffed animals, drums, shakers, a mirror and myself. I would sit on the floor, joining Peter in his rocking movements, the rhythm of his hand flaps, changing the orientation and distance of our bodies, and echoing his sounds.
The six weeks of time with him was life changing for me. My mantra became “distinguish, don’t extinguish behaviors.” From this experience, I took a leap and did a videotaped study for my thesis, entitled “Dance/Movement Therapy in the Development of a Client Therapist Relationship.” I knew I had to bring the body and nonverbal language into my work, to bridge the gap. It was at my first job as a dance/movement therapist where I began making clear connections between communication and movement. Here are just a few of the principles I have come to use in my work with clients who have Autism.
- Begin with what the child is doing. Joining in their movement is the first step towards making an interpersonal connection, which is necessary for any communication to follow.
- Learn the child’s language by bringing their postures, gestures, repetitive or idiosyncratic movements into one’s own body.
- Expand on these movements by making them more visible, audible, and/or repeatable.
- Pair a sound or line drawing to their movements by following the intensity, shape, duration, and rhythm of the recurring movement repertoire.
- Notice the context in which their movements occur; this may allow one to see if there might be communicative intent or expression.
- Pair these communicative body/sound statements with a picture, gesture, vocalization or sound approximation that may move the child towards having a clearer “say” in their world.
- Trust the BODY to be the bridge between movement and communication
* Name has been changed to protect his identity.