Working with Special Kids: Classes for Autistic Children Can Make a Difference-For Everyone

By Hohn, Brady | Dance Magazine, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Working with Special Kids: Classes for Autistic Children Can Make a Difference-For Everyone


Hohn, Brady, Dance Magazine


Jodi DiPiazza wanted to take dance class. But the 3-year-old had trouble following directions. She often got upset. She couldn't focus. Dance studios said they couldn't teach her. Her parents were disappointed, but not surprised--Jodi is autistic.

Finally the DiPiazzas approached Annette Romano-Merlini, owner of Dance Dimensions in New Milford, New Jersey. At their request, Merlini decided to start a special class for autistic students. She wanted to share her belief in dance's positive influence, and New Jersey has long attracted families with a variety of special needs because the state legislature offers special funding and support. A website, autismnj.org, covers state efforts for those with autism, and includes a listing of workshops for professionals helping autistic children. Romano-Merlini felt that once word was out, she could easily fill a class.

She was right. For the past four years, Dance Dimensions has been offering the class to students from 5 to 12 years of age. Several teachers at the studio attended workshops. They found that repetition could be key to the children's success. They also learned to avoid changes in the time, place, and structure of the class and to introduce new material slowly. Romano-Merlini discovered that she had to change how she explained a step or combination, avoiding imagery and make-believe. "'Fly around the room like a butterfly,' does not get the same understanding as 'Run on your tippy toes and wave your arms up and down,' " she says. …

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