The Autism Society Philippines (ASP) is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the well-being of persons with autism spectrum disorder. The ASP has been in the forefront of providing services and training to families living with autism.

21 May 2013

The heart dances



By: DANG U. KOE, ASP Chair Emeritus

Danniel, 19, with autism, belatedly joined a SpedDANCE workshop.  His mom Annie was convinced by a friend to try the Dance Movement Therapy conducted by The Heart at Play.  During Mom Annie’s first observations, she could not figure out exactly how the therapy works, but took note of the novelty of using props like rope to make it easy for special needs students to follow the dance steps. Then, during the workshop’s recognition program, Mom Annie saw a young dancer, Patty, demonstrating how the movements with props are actually carefully thought of movements leading to a full-blown hip hop dance number!  Never in her wildest imagination did she think that it was possible for her son Danniel – challenged in communication - to learn hip hop dancing or any other complicated dance steps. But at that moment, the mother knew it was possible.

Patty is the daughter of Ana Rivera, founder of The Heart at Play, an advocacy organization for children with special needs. Teacher Ana, as she is fondly called, belongs to a family of dancers.   In 2000, she opened her own dance studio that catered to students from exclusive schools in Greenhills, San Juan.  Amidst her flourishing private dance studio, she felt a strong urge to act and make things happen on the dance floor for children with special needs.  So she completed a diploma course in special education (SpEd) from the College of the Holy Spirit.

In between her SpEd course and current pursuit of a master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology (SLP), Teacher Ana went to Wichita, Kansas, USA for training and immersion programs in dance therapy. During her observation in a dance school that caters to special children, she witnessed a child with autism who was being physically assisted all throughout a session. The CWA and her mother struggled as they tried to follow the teachers’ instructions.  Later, they left the dance floor and never returned.  From this incident, Teacher Ana vowed to promote the “No Child Left Behind Act” where her heart is - on the dance floor.

With her observations from different dance schools (including an intensive training with the American Dance Therapy in New York), her SPED background, and a heart moved by compassion for children with special needs, Teacher Ana designed a unique and innovative Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) that accommodates special needs children of all functioning levels. Cecil Sicam, Vice President of Autism Society Philippines and a seasoned SpEd teacher, observed that “Teacher Ana and her team use task analysis (the process of breaking down complex tasks into smaller chunks used to teach special needs children) in teaching dancing; they modify their teaching strategies based on individual learning styles. The DMT adopted the principles of behavior management and structured teaching that are necessary in teaching children with autism and other special needs.”

The Dance Movement Therapy, also called SpedDance, is unique in its approach to address students’ developmental disabilities with the application of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) principles and with the creative use of unique and innovative intervention tools. Teacher Ana explained that the first goal of DMT program is to address the behavior of the students (such as self-injury, physical aggression and self-stimulation) with the use of an intervention tool, like a rope.  An intervention tool makes it easier for students to focus their attention to the task at hand and to follow instructions resulting to longer attention span and better imitation skills. “At the same time, they feel more motivated because DMT is done in a group setting, they do not feel frustrated. Then we proceed to addressing their coordination and sensory integration issues through the use of music and repetitive movements, along with the use of other intervention tools like balls, hoops, sash. The students’ social skills are also developed in an environment that is structured and safe.”

Mom Evelyn observed that her “heavyweight” son Angelo not only stopped gaining weight with DMT, “he also has marked improvement in body coordination and physical endurance, became more flexible and agile. Not only that, he is now able to tolerate loud music without covering his ears, and there is less crying and complaining during the dance sessions!”

Baba Paguia, co-founder of Bridges Foundation, attests to how The Heart At Play “creatively makes adaptations with various materials so that the kids can feel a degree of success doing similar movements.  The dance is made as fun as possible, and the teachers are so patient and encouraging.”  DMT also allows parents, caregivers, therapists to  “join the child’s world” by actually being part of the dance. Thus, the DMT program creates an environment that encourages and motivates students to participate, and to bond a special relationship with their parents/caregivers and peers. But the ultimate goal is for the tools and prompts from the participating adults to “fade out”, leaving the students dancing on their own.

To continue promoting “no child left behind,” The Heart At Play started an outreach program in 2011 to make Dance Movement Therapy program non-discriminatory – for different disabilities across all ages and economic strata.

Seeing her son Danniel actually following with ease the hip hop dance steps through The Heart at Play’s Dance Movement Therapy is not just what makes Mom Annie happy and thankful.  It is really the smile, the joy that Danniel shows while dancing.

Learn more about the Dance Movement Therapy from Ana Rivera herself during her seminar for Autism Society Philippines on May 25; back-to-back with a seminar on Making Inclusions Work for Children with Autism by Dr. Mercedes Adorio. For more details, follow Autism Society Philippines on Facebook, Twitter and blogspot.

(Autism Society Philippines is holding for the first time a seminar on Dance Therapy on May 25 at the Bridges Foundation in Quezon City. Teacher Anna Rivera will demonstrate how ABA principles/structured teaching can be applied even in learning hip-hop dancing to CWAs. Meanwhile, ASP’s regular family support group meeting is on May18.  For details, follow ASP on Facebook, Twitter and its blogspot.)


This article appeared in print and online by Manila Bulletin on May 20, 2013

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