For almost two years now, the National Centre for Dance Therapy (NCDT) has been collaborating with the Gérard-Filion High School (Longueuil, Québec) to offer adapted dance sessions to the students on the autism spectrum at the school. This year, notwithstanding the health restrictions, five classes of students are benefiting from in-person weekly dance classes, offered by the NCDT professionals George Stamos and Émilie Barrette.
Marie-Josée Roy, who teaches at the school, talks about the project and its benefits for the students.
I’ve worked as a teacher at the Gérard-Filion school for the past 10 years and with students who are part of the specialized program classes for the past 5 years. For the past 6 years, I teach a program focused on preparing them for the job market, which allows students to develop their skills as future workers. Our objective is to improve the personal and professional autonomy of the students. As a teacher, I am responsible for teaching several subjects to my students. The challenges are numerous given the unique characteristics of each student (adaptation to the physical environment, light, noise, use of visual sequences, reduction of verbalization, etc.) We work as a team in order to create a climate that is conducive to learning, for all. We try to provide them with a variety of situations and projects in order to open their horizons to the possibilities offered to them while respecting each person's guidelines. Students with ASD need benchmarks in terms of time, schedule, and space. The environment of our classes is adapted in order to reduce visual, auditory, sensory stimuli as much as possible... Every day we experience small successes with them and we fully savour them! We try to develop each student according to his needs and abilities.
The sessions allow the students to spend energy and calm down, which promotes learning. We are also able to make connections between dance, body movement and emotions through the various activities we do in the workshops. It is easier for us to make connections with certain concepts seen in the sessions during more anxiety-triggering moments in the classroom. Several students are also at their first dance experience, which allows us to work on their adaptation to a new room (auditorium) and to new authority figures. They must interact with the teachers whom they have never met before!
We are impressed by their creativity and their availability during the sessions. The students do not all have the same openness to dance, so some of them are more resistant than others to begin with. What is interesting as the sessions unfold is to see how each person progresses. All have made some progress! At first, some students weren't even able to physically stay in the auditorium and now they agree to participate in some of the activities. The workshops are also well set up to meet the needs of a larger number of students. Some like the rhythm game, others like the mirror or some will enjoy moving around. They all thrive. I am particularly proud of several students who have been expressing for a few weeks, at the end of the activity, that they feel good! Naming an emotion is very difficult for some autistic students... It’s a great achievement!
The main challenge is definitely the financial aspect. The academic team has always been very positive about the project. The school has always supported us in our efforts to implement it within our relationship classes; on the other hand, budgets being limited, we didn’t have enough money and, despite a successful first year, we were not able to commit to a second year. Luckily, the grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada, obtained by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, allows us to live the experience for a 2nd year!
With the pandemic, we had to face certain constraints, but in the end we were able to establish a routine and a stable schedule for the students. The support of Emilie and Georges also helps us make this project a success. The students respect the concept of a bubble class. They all wear the mask during the activity and hand disinfection is done before and after the activity. The teachers have also adapted to the new reality of the environment. We also have access to a large auditorium which allows us to carry out activities that require more space while respecting sanitary measures.
Anxiety is already present in our students’ lives, year after year. On the other hand, with the pandemic situation and the health measures imposed in schools, we observed an increase in their anxiety level.
It therefore seemed essential to us to find ways to reduce this anxiety in order to promote learning in our students. Physical activity has been proven to work for years. We strive to get students moving as much as possible every day through different projects. Adapted dance workshops supplemented these means by promoting energy expenditure and a better understanding of one's body and emotions.
There are several great stories!
For example, a student taking part in the workshops for the first time in two years!
Or a teacher who saw a student smile candidly for the first time since the start of the year. In class she is usually frowning and ’in her bubble’. During the "Bouge tes fesses" (the name of our adapted dance project) sessions, she was the one who did the various movements with the least restraint and her blissful smile said it all.
For my part, we were also able to defuse some negative situations with a student by actively participating with him in a session. We strongly believe that the student would not have been able to complete his day if he had not participated in the adapted dance class.
I am pleasantly surprised each time we end a workshop by the creativity, ease and participation of the students. They are unpredictable students and in the context of the workshops it is just magic! We grow with them every week, the workshops have a positive effect on them and on us, the workers. These are special moments that we have the chance to experience with them and the NCDT team.