Inclusion in Education: Children with Autism

By Julia Marx


Allison is five years old. She attends dance class each week at her public school in Oakland. In class, Allison spins, jumps, and sways to the music, laughing as she moves easily through the crowd of other kindergartners. The teacher stops the music and Allison knows what to do. She freezes her body in a dance shape; arms held out wide, legs spread, smiling widely.

The scene above is typical of dance classes provided by the Luna Dance Institute, but one thing that makes Allison’s class unique is that she and about half of the other students in her class have developmental delays like autism. For the past eight years, Luna has been providing children with autism spectrum disorders distinctive opportunities to integrate with their typically developing peers through creative dance.

It has been hard to miss the increasing media coverage on autism over the last decade. A steady stream of stories have appeared on our nightly news, as well as in our papers, magazines, and books shelves. Topics range for the rising rates of autism diagnoses, to changing treatments, and expanding and narrowing definitions of related conditions known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASD; which includes distinctions among conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome and High Functioning Autism). Most recently, the debunking of any causal link between autism and vaccines made headlines. The spotlight on these disorders seems to be due to both the public’s growing understanding of what living with autism entails coupled with the continued sense of the unknown around the causes and cures of these enigmatic disorders.

As more and more children with autism spectrum disorders are identified, families, schools, and communities are all becoming “inclusive” environments that embrace the challenges these children bring and must make necessary accommodations to allow every child the opportunity to grow and succeed. Perhaps surprisingly to some, creative dance has a unique role to play in expanding the inclusive opportunities for children on the autism spectrum.

As a dance therapist Suzi Tortola has worked extensively in this area. Through her work she has developed an approach to treatment for children with ASD that is based on the premise that all non-verbal acts have the potential to be communicative. Dance educators also have an important role with this population particularly in the inclusion setting. An effective inclusive dance class utilizes an approach to teaching and learning that caters to typically developing and atypically developing children equally and without distinction. What lies at the heart of Luna’s success in “inclusive” creative dance classrooms is a focus on following the child’s lead, narrating without judgment a child’s choices in dances of their own creation, and challenging children to challenge themselves through classroom activities, such as improvisational structures.

The Luna model of inclusion utilizes several principles of the Integrated Play GroupsTM (IPG), developed by Dr. Pamela Wolfberg. Dr. Wolfberg is associate professor and director of the Autism Spectrum graduate program (Project Mosaic) in the Department of Special Education at San Francisco State University. Outside of the University, Dr. Wolfberg directs the Autism Institute on Peer Socialization and Play, where she developed the IPG model. IPGs integrate children with autism with typically developing children in natural settings conducive to creative play and imagination. Similarly, integrated creative dance classes provide a context that is mutually engaging for children with and without autism. Further, the frequent use of shadowing or follow-the-leader games allow children with autism to seamlessly pick up on cues from their peers, as well as allowing the typically developing children the chance to witness the strengths and successes of their peers with autism.

With these elements in place, the creative dance class becomes a unique space in which children with and without developmental delays are often indistinguishable. The creative dance content is well suited as a context for integrating children with ASD because the primary modality of the dance class is kinesthetic and sensorial relying less on the expressive language ability of the child than other contexts. In addition, each class contains a “ritualized” warm up and cool down drawing on Anne Green Gilbert’s brain dance which provides sensory integration experiences for the students. These movements allow students who may become over or under aroused in other contexts a structure in which to regulate themselves reaching a more optimal state of arousal. Finally, the activities are structured and repeated while the content of the dance is self directed–this allows each child the opportunity to understand the structures at their own pace while creating a learning environment in which each child can confidently participate and feel their creative choices are valued.

Luna Dance Institute
All Luna programs are inclusive, however, since 2006 Luna has led an active inquiry on teaching dance to children with special needs in order to investigate strategies that allow for success for all. This investigation occurred through five years at Tilden Elementary and four at Westlake Middle School, as well as through our MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) project. We invite all who are interested in exploring dance for children with autism to join us on April 2 for a unique professional development workshop taught in collaboration with Dr. Pamela Wolfberg. For more information, visit or call 510-428-1155.

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.

Julia Marx is a dancer, dance educator and arts administrator. Additionally, a former special education teacher with extensive experience working with children on the autism spectrum, Julia has a particular interest in providing dance experiences for children with ASD. Julia currently lives in Boston, MA.