5 reasons why Dance Movement Therapy is effective for children and teens with autism

Contributor: Mackenzie Henderson-Wraight

At Dance and Arts Therapy New Zealand, dance therapy is integral to what we do. It’s a relatively new therapy here in Aotearoa (although is well-established overseas) and is about creative expression, fostering relationships and neuropsychology. We currently run seven different dance therapy groups across Auckland for children and teens which are specifically designed for people with autism. These are known as our STARS groups.

So, what is dance/movement therapy?

The Dance/Movement Therapy Association of Australasia defines this therapy as the “the relational and therapeutic use of dance and movement to further the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and cultural functioning of a person.” I’m going to break down this definition to exemplify why dance/movement therapy is effective for children and teens with autism.

  1. Relational use of dance

It has been shown that the relationship between the client and the therapist has a greater effect on the outcome of therapy rather than the individual components of the therapy itself. These individual components include the type of therapy and the models that are followed, such and mindfulness therapies and cognitive behavioural therapy. Naturally, dance is used in dance/movement therapy to build a relationship between the clients and the therapist.

The therapist ‘mirrors’ the client’s movement, reflecting back to the client their movement qualities. This allows the therapist to create an empathetic connection with the client through experiencing the client’s movement for themselves. It also conveys to the client that they are being seen and understood by the therapist. It is these shared dances that form the basis of the dance therapy relationship.

  1. Therapeutic use of dance

This is where neuropsychology comes into play. Our brains contain specialised cells called mirror neurons, and they are activated whenever someone imagines, performs, or watches an action. In dance therapy, we activate this area directly through mirroring. In our STARS group, therapists can use mirroring to build a relationship with the child or teen client, but the client can also mirror the movements that the therapist does.

When considering mirror neurons, this second case is especially advantageous for children and teens with autism. It has been theorised that when the client maps the therapist’s movements onto their own movements, social understanding and cooperation are facilitated. This is because the client’s mirror neurons are activated from both watching and performing the same movement as the therapist.

Additionally, what if the roles are reversed and the therapist is now mirroring the client. It has been found that levels of socialised behaviour increase in children and teens with autism who were mirrored by adults, when compared to children with autism who were not mirrored.

  1. Physical functioning

As dance therapy is a psychotherapy that uses a client’s bodily movement, it is an excellent method for addressing the physical functioning of children and teens with autism which can sometimes be disregarded in cognitive or behavioural therapies. Some people with autism may have issues with motor coordination, such as how easily or smoothly they can walk. These concerns can be addressed in dance therapy, alongside other full-body movement patterns like crawling, jumping, and pushing. Dance therapists hold knowledge of how movement patterns typically develop over time, and can create interventions to address motor development in sessions.

Additionally, some children and teens with autism may self-stimulate with movement. In session, a dance therapist can support the client to channel these self-stimulatory movements into expressive movements. Here, they can begin to increase their area of tolerance between being under- and overstimulated, while also self-regulating in relationships.  

  1. Emotional functioning

A key feature of autism is difficulty in understanding and communicating emotions, in relation to the individual and their peers. In dance therapy, emotions are woven into every session. Dance/movement therapy sessions often start with clients sharing how they are feeling at that moment, and sharing a movement that illustrates their current state. Everyone in the room then mirrors the movement back to the person who shared.

This process has a threefold effect on emotional functioning. Firstly, the person who shared can identify and communicate their emotions through movement. Secondly, others in the group can learn about the emotions of others. Thirdly, the group can experience all of the emotions in the room, widening their experience of emotions through mirroring and sharing a movement together.

Additionally, throughout the session the therapist will be mirroring each individual’s mood in their movement. This reflection can reinforce the client’s recognition of the emotion, and they can understand how they are expressing it to others. [f3]

  1. Social functioning

Social functioning is at the core of our STARS groups for children and teens with autism. These dance therapy groups allow these kids to form a community group with other children like them. In comparison to neurotypical kids, children and teens with autism are less likely have to relationships [f4] and friendships, so being in a dance therapy group can be invaluable for getting to know other people and forming a sense of group identity. Through sharing movement experiences with group members, the kids can learn how to work together sharing props, becoming comfortable with eye contact and making friends.

These five reasons make dance therapy an excellent option for children and teenagers with autism. It’s more than having a fun boogie with a group of their peers, it’s using the child’s own movement to improve several areas [f5] of their life within a safe space and within a therapeutic relationship.

If you would like to find the STARS group that would be right for a child or teen with autism that you know, contact emma@dancetherapy.co.nz.

Mackenzie Henderson-Wraight is currently studying towards her Master of Dance Movement Therapy at The University of Auckland. Mackenzie is becoming a dance therapist because she loves supporting people with her favourite thing in the world: dance!