When he dances, he feels free. His mind stops spinning as his feet leave the ground. He leaps, he flies and his world and our world becomes one for a brief moment in time.
Autism and dance is something I had never given much thought. Why would I? My son wasn’t able to jump when he was three. He physically could not pick up both feet at once. He couldn’t hop at four years old. Throwing a ball was far too complicated for his hands and brain to get into sync. To play with his toys, he’d press his head against the ground, unable to focus without the ground keeping him steady.
We learned from his occupational therapist that both his vestibular and proprioception systems were not sending his brain the proper signals. He had mountains of therapy, and then mountains more, but still…dance?
We celebrated when he could jump at six, wearing through three mini-trampolines in two years, busting the springs. Jump. Jump. Jump. He made up for lost time.
He’ll never speak. He’ll always be in diapers. He will never do, never be, never, never, never. The experts were wrong. Prepare for an institution, they warned. Prepare for the worst.
We didn’t. I can’t imagine where we’d be today if I had listened. Instead, we tried everything they swore wouldn’t help. Diet doesn’t matter. OT is hogwash. Supplements just make your pee yellow. There is no cure.
There isn’t. My son still has autism and he hates it.
He hates not having friends. He hates being labeled as weird. He hates being alone all the time, not invited, not included. Social media a constant reminder of how uncool he is, how different.
He watched Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance religiously. Recording and watching over and over again. He’d imitate their moves while he stimmed, pacing in the backyard, his imagination full of Maddie Ziegler’s latest win.
“I’m going to be a professional dancer,” he stated.
They’ll make fun of him, I feared. They’ll laugh and point and call him more names than they already do. But I signed him up for classes to appease him. I’ll do anything to give him happiness.
The studio is too loud, it’s too crowded, the walls are purple, it smells like sweaty socks. And so we switched studios twice, finding a night class on the far end of town. He forced himself inside, strangling his debilitating anxiety for an entire hour.
“I can do this, mom.” Was he convincing me, or himself?
He’s obsessive. That’s bad, they said. Again, so weird, but that obsession translates to passion and dedication. He’s learned the language of dance, pronouncing French instruction like a native.
He memorizes choreography in an instant. A dance teacher’s dream student.
Ballet, tap, contemporary, hip hop and jazz are his soul now. They welcome him with an open heart, giving him wings.
At fifteen, he stands over six feet tall with legs that go on for miles. His leaps like a gazelle, graceful and powerful in flight. His body is strong, lifting ballerinas is now his favorite pastime. “They’re so beautiful, mom.”
Autism and dance.
That first recital, his ginger hair shining in the spotlight, the crowd cheering in awe. I sobbed. I’m sobbing now. He is my superhero.
I asked him recently, “what is it about dance that you love so much?”
“When I’m dancing, my mind stops and I can just be in my body…everything is okay.”
Autism and dance. I’m forever grateful.
Start at Home! We Did
Depending on the cognitive and developmental levels, there are many DVDs on dance instruction, and games too! We started with the Disney Just Dance and moved up to the Hip Hop (which is the hardest). The main goal is to move and become one with your body. Sometimes as our kids grow, their proprioceptive systems have not caught up with their long limbs. Dance is a way to help them become more in control of their bodies and their emotional well being.