Editor’s Note: Heidi Ehrenreich is a second generation dance/movement therapist who has spent her career pioneering ways to integrate the fields of Speech Language Pathology and Dance/Movement Therapy. She believes communication exists on a continuum and spans a wide range of verbal and nonverbal expression.
Before 1973, children with special needs were educated in private school programs or institutions. Then, in 1973, the Federal Law 94-142 was passed, mandating that all students, regardless of diagnosis, be educated within the public school system. So, I left my work in private schools and created a position for myself as the Speech/Language Therapist in a public school program designated for “Severely Emotionally Disturbed and Autistic” students. I called my program Communication Through Movement. For the next eight years, I worked with the students, individually and in classrooms, blending dance/movement therapy into the area of interpersonal communication and the continuum of expression.
Recently, I supervised a Speech and Language Pathologist working in a middle school classroom for developmentally delayed students. Most students were non-verbal or echolalic, and many were in wheelchairs. Both the speech therapist and myself were new to the program and were meeting the students for the first time.
As we sat with a nonverbal teenage girl with autism, it was clear to me the best thing we could do was observe and see how she and the others communicated within the classroom environment. Shortly after we arrived, the music teacher came in, wheeling a huge boombox and basket of instruments.
“Oh good,” I exclaimed. “This is a wonderful time to be in here.”
The funkiest version of If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands began and, immediately, the nonverbal girl with whom we had tried unsuccessfully to make a connection, stood up. Her formerly dull eyes started sparkling as she began to dance. What had been idiosyncratic, extraneous hand movements a moment before now moved in rhythm to the beat; her sharp and quick movements were reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever!
“May I join her dance?” I asked the music teacher. “Of course,” she smiled. I got up on the round rug and began incorporating the girl’s gestures into my dance. Instantly, we were partners – watching each other, reaching out and touching hands, and having a great time. Several other students found their way to the big dance rug and all eyes were on us. One small girl plopped herself on her back in the middle of the round rug, her weight passive, her attitude distant. I got down on the floor and joined her. After a few minutes, she actively engaged her weight as she sat up, leaning on one arm facing me. Her eyes, which had been unfocused and opaque, sharpened into a clear deep gaze into my eyes.
I noticed a student in a wheelchair rocking back and forth and went over to bring her in to the dancing space with the six dancers now there. Soon, the teachers were clapping, the kids were smiling, and the speech therapist sat with her mouth open.
“WOW,” she kept saying over and over.
I see the core of my work in this classroom as making sure each student has a basic communication system to express their needs, wants and feelings. To have a say in their world which is so limited by physical and learning challenges. What better than the blend of language and movement therapy to facilitate connection and bring joy into the classroom and the lives of the students within.