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Dance/Movement Therapy for Autism

What’s inside this article: A look at the current research into the benefits of dance and movement therapy for autistic individuals. This article includes a list of activities that parents can do with their children at home.

Recent research has found promising evidence for dance/movement therapy (DMT) for autism as an intervention technique.

Medical professionals wildly misunderstood autism for decades. So truthfully, not a lot of research was done on interventions for autism until more recently.

There’s still a lot to learn when it comes to finding therapies that help autistic children, while still embracing and accepting them for who they are.

But – at the very least, dance movement therapy can be a lot of fun!

What is Dance/Movement Therapy

Dance/movement therapy, called DMT for short, is the therapeutic use of dance and movement to improve or treat various psychological or emotional challenges.

DMT is based on the idea that motion and emotion are interconnected and you can express or release your emotional energy through movement.

DMT helps individuals with depression, anxiety, dementia, etc and may have benefits for children with autism, too.

Why Does Dance/Movement Therapy Help Children With Autism?

Dance/movement therapy helps children with autism in a variety of ways.

It may improve self-regulation, body awareness, social skills, and even communication.

Some ways DMT helps:

  • Endorphins – Exercises in general boosts endorphin levels in the brain. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain, creating a positive feeling in the body. This improves mood and also can relieve pain.
  • Improves body awareness and sensory integration – Movement provides sensory feedback to the body. This improves sensory integration and helps your child understand their body better.
  • Teaches children a healthy coping method – Often when children act out it’s because they can’t communicate how they’re feeling and don’t have the tools to cope. Dance/movement therapy provides a healthy outlet that kids can use as a coping tool.
  • Form of expression that isn’t talk-based– Dance therapists can help children express traumatic experiences, difficult social circumstances, and strong emotions through movement instead of using talk-based therapy.
Benefits of Dance Movement Therapy for Autistic Children

Research on Dance/Movement Therapy

There isn’t a significant amount of research on dance/movement therapy for autism but the research that is available is promising.

Current research found both short-term and long-term benefits of reduced stress and improved mood. (Source).

There’s also an empirical link between dance therapy and lower cortisol levels, as well as better self-esteem.

Another study found DMT improves “body-self” for individuals through self-scoring. The term “body-self” means body-based, interactive, experiencing of emotions and core-self (Source). This is a common struggle in autistic individuals.

A study of daycare children found that the children who participated in dance movement therapy showed significantly greater positive gains over time in social competence and both internalizing and externalizing behavior problems.

This supports the idea that DMT may improve social and communication skills.

DMT Exercises At Home

I’m not sure how practical finding a dance therapist would be.

But if you’re interested in the ways DMT may help your child and want to try it out at home, these are some activities you can try.

Getting Started with Dance/Movement Therapy

Create a music playlist

You should begin by putting together a playlist of music to use with your child. Begin with music that is melodic and has a positive meaning to your child.

During the exercise, you should change the music to fit your child’s energy level so you may want to include music that is more upbeat, along with some slower music.

It’s also great to have a mixture of fast and slow music for promoting your child to move at the speed of the song.

Make room to move

Make sure you create a clear, open space for your child to move freely. Remove anything that could be a tripping hazard and move furniture back to create enough room.

Alternatively, you could take this activity outside and do it in the yard.

Starting DMT at Home

Begin with free movement. Just let your child dance and move to the music however they wish. Join in and dance with them. This is also a great bonding activity.

Mirroring Exercise

Mirroring is an exercise used by dance/movement therapists that is considered to enhance emotional understanding and empathy for others.

Acknowledge your child and begin to mimic their movements. Then, take turns being the leader. First, you copy their dance and then have them copy yours. If you have more than one child doing the exercise, they should all take turns being the leader.

Mirroring Exercise - how to practice DMT technique known as mirroring

Movement Prompts

Movement prompts are another exercise you can do with your child. This encourages children to think about their bodies, movements, and music.

Try some of these prompts:

  • Can you make your dance bigger?
  • Can you make it smaller?
  • Try to move one part of your body and keep the rest still.
  • Switch which body part is moving.
  • Can you make your dance faster?
  • Can you make your dance slower?
  • Show me with your body how this song makes you feel.
  • Pretend you have paintbrushes on your hands and paint wavy lines in the air
  • When the music stops freeze and make a shape with your body
Movement Prompts of DMT

Kids songs with actions

Getting your kids to dance with you to children’s songs with actions is a good way to work on motor planning, praxis, and following directions/actions.

Some examples of songs with actions:

  • Baby Shark
  • Open, shut them
  • Hokey pokey
  • If you’re happy and you know it
  • Teddy bear, teddy bear

You can also find a large list of songs with actions on Songs For Teaching.

Although research is still limited, it is promising.

These activities could potentially help your child with self-regulation, social skills, and expressing their emotions.

If nothing else, it’s sure to be a lot of fun!

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