A Feasibility Study of the Effects of Dance/Movement Therapy on Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Journal Brief

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A recent pilot study exploring the use of mirroring in the treatment of adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) supports previous findings that dance/movement therapy can increase social skills of individuals with ASD in addition to improving body awareness, self-other differentiation, and psychological well-being. 

Researchers in Germany worked with 31 participants, aged 16-47 years, with autism spectrum disorder.  While a control group of 15 participants received no treatment during the course of the study, the 16 members of the experimental group participated in a seven-session dance/movement therapy (DMT) treatment that used mirroring as its primary intervention. 

For readers unfamiliar with the mirroring technique, imagine that you are standing in front of an actual mirror.  Now, replace the glass with another person.  Just as your reflected self follows your motions, this person copies you.  When you raise your arm, she raises hers.  In mirroring during a DMT session, the therapist becomes the client’s reflection.  Rather than simply copying the client’s actions, however, the therapist uses empathy to connect and reflect the client’s underlying movement qualities.  The therapist may also take certain motions and alter their quality, encouraging the client to try out new ways of moving.  Overtime, this process becomes shared so that both therapist and client move between the leader/follower roles.  As the researchers of this study note, it is through such give-and-take that a ‘mutual relationship’ is formed between the therapist and client.  This relationship helps clients become more attuned to others while simultaneously allowing them to feel a greater sense of self-differentiation.  In its simplest form, mirroring occurs between two people, the client and the therapist.  However, it may also involve multiple participants.  One such example of this is the “Baum-circle,” in which one person improvises movement while all other group members follow. 

During each hour long DMT session in this study, participants were paired into dyads, typically with a research assistant as their partner.  Each partner in the dyad had the opportunity to be leader and follower in addition to having a free period in which both could move as they pleased while remaining aware of and connected to each other.  After the dyadic work, the group was brought into a Baum-circle, where participants moved to their own song choices while being mirrored by the rest of the group.  In both the dyadic and circle work, participants were encouraged to kinesthetically attune to other group members by reflecting movement qualities rather than exact motions.

An analysis of pre and post self-report tests completed by all 31 study participants showed a statistically significant increase in the treatment group’s psychological well-being, body awareness, self-other awareness, and social skills.  While there was also a slight increase in the treatment group’s self-report of empathy, this increase was not statistically significant when compared to the control group.  These findings suggest that dance/movement therapy, and mirroring in particular, can be a powerful approach to working with adolescents and adults with ASD.

Although the authors acknowledge their study’s limitations – namely the small sample size, lack of randomization, and the fact that some of their measures have not yet been standardized – their study’s promising results support the efficacy of mirroring as a treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder. Reflecting that past reports on dance therapy and autism have generally taken the form of case studies on children, the authors propose that their pilot study may be a jumping off point that paves the way for additional avenues of larger-scale research. 

References:

Koch, S. C., Mehl, L., Sobanski, E., Sieber, M, & Fuchs, T. (2015). Fixing the Mirrors: A Feasibility Study of the Effects of Dance/Movement Therapy on Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism, 9(3), 338-350.

 

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