Deakin project explores pirouette prescription for kids with autism

Media release
26 June 2019

Deakin University's Deakin Child Study Centre is seeking Melbourne children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be part of a ground-breaking new project using dance to improve the way they move and how they feel, learn and communicate.

The project builds on recently-published research from the centre's team, located in Deakin's School of Psychology, which found dance programs could bring psychological, cognitive and social benefits for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

The systematic review, published in the Disability and Rehabilitation Medical Journal, looked at 19 international studies involving 521 children, providing the first significant evidence of the benefits of prescribing dance to improve developmental outcomes.

Deakin Child Study Centre director Professor Nicole Rinehart, creator of Deakin's AllPlay Dance program, said the findings suggested a medium to large improvement in physical functioning for kids with disabilities who participated in dance - specifically in their balance and jumping ability.

"Cognitive improvement was also found, specifically for attention, organisational skills and learning," Professor Rinehart said.

"Plus additional benefits were recognised, including an increase in creativity. And for children with autism, dance was identified as a possible intervention to address aloofness and disconnection in social situations.

"But unfortunately many children with neurodevelopmental disorders and disabilities face barriers to participating in dance and have fewer opportunities to join recreational programs in the community than their typically-developing peers."

"Our program aims to change that, allowing every child in our community to experience the joy and benefits of dance."

As part of the new AllPlay Dance program, children with autism will be matched with more experienced dance buddies over eight weekly sessions, culminating in a performance for family and friends.

Children aged between 8 and 12 who have a formal diagnosis of ASD without intellectual disability, are encouraged to sign up. The workshops will have a classical/contemporary focus and will be run by dance and disability experts at Deakin's Burwood campus dance studios during term three or four, working alongside researchers who will assess the impact of the program.

"The project will use cutting edge neuroscience techniques to understand the brain challenges of these children and then see if a tailored dance program improves developmental outcomes," Professor Rinehart said.

"We will be looking at brain functioning, social and mental health, communication skills, and the processing of biological motion.

"Ultimately what makes this different from any other intervention of its kind is that it is 100 per cent science driven. We've started with the evidence and tailored this program from the ground up.

"We want to show the potential value of prescribing dance to the one in 100 Australian children who are diagnosed with ASD."

Deakin Lecturer in Art and Performance Dr Olivia Millard, from the School of Communication and Creative Arts, is developing the dance program, which will build on another AllPlay Dance intervention carried out last year with a smaller group of children with cerebral palsy.

"People's ideas of who a dancer is and what they should look like can be quite narrow, but it is the experience of dancing itself that people are drawn to," Dr Millard said.

"The feeling of dancing is unique, amazing, and that's why people do it. Anyone can dance, it's a very empowering experience. AllPlay Dance is about kids really loving what they're doing, and that joy is what people in the audience respond to."

The AllPlay Dance program is already getting the attention of several big names in dance, including a partnership with Queensland Ballet to expand the program into special schools, and next month Professor Rinehart will visit the New York City Ballet who have expressed interest in the program. Research collaborators at the University of California, Los Angeles, will also be piloting a similar dance intervention program at the same time as the Deakin project.

Parents can visit the AllPlay website to find out more about the ASD program and register their interest. Dance buddies - experienced dancers over 14 years old interested in pursuing a career as a dancer or dance teacher - are also being sought to assist with the program's rollout.

AllPlay Dance is supported by Queensland Ballet, the Grace and Emilio Foundation, MECCA Brands and the J&S Wenig Scholar Program.

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