Dance Movement Psychotherapy for children and individuals facing communication difficulties

Rashi Bijlani

In this article I would like to bring out the benefits of Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) for children and individuals facing communication difficulties. But why the art therapies at all, one may ask. To this Butte & Unkovich (2012) have realized that individuals of all abilities can engage in art therapies. Furthermore, they describe how these therapeutic interventions provide a space for self-expression, be it verbal or non-verbal. During the course of therapy we unravel the damages the hidden emotions can have on an individual, especially the ones that are finding it difficult to communicate in our conventional and so called ‘normal’ patterns. As Goldbart and Carlton (2010) point out, distressing difficult emotions and events may cause more problems in the future if they are not expressed, which is often the case with people who are not able to verbally express their feelings.

Imagine when you enter a new class or a new work environment. You don’t know anyone. People look at you differently and think of you to be the “special one”. Nobody comes to interact with you, because it appears you want to be left alone. Wouldn’t your world become so lonely? And wherever you go, you are kept away from people because your elders are too shy to introduce you. Being in your own world is the only choice you are left with, at that point of time.

Thurman (2011) presents a very valid reminder in pointing out the importance of human rights for people with profound learning disabilities. Her musings were an eye opener as something like communication, that we took for granted, was being deliberated as a subject of human rights, for people with learning difficulties. It again had me wondering, Have we really become this tough as a society, where people with learning difficulties need a law to be implemented for them to be able to communicate?

Many neuroscientists think that children diagnosed with autism are not responsive or may not care about others’ needs. On the contrary, in my experience they have empathetic responses and sometimes may even be more loving than many others, who do not have any psychological difficulties. But often, they find it difficult to put it in actions that may be acceptable to others, or also they may find it difficult to track other people’s emotions and feelings. It then made me curious about the reason the young ones usually do not communicate with us. In my journey as a dance movement psychotherapist, I came across children, adolescents and adults facing difficulty in communicating. As Dance Movement Psychotherapists, we are in a position to be their voice, and attempt that their needs, desires, interests, joys, protests are heard. If children with learning disabilities are already finding it difficult to fathom relationships, then we as dance movement psychotherapists provide them with that space where they begin to find this relationship extremely valuable. Through DMP, we want to increase the positive associations children have in their relationships. This is a relationship that they can look forward to, and that can henceforth become a base for their future rapports.

As a dance movement psychotherapist I have always strived to make this relationship a journey that would be their foundation to future relationships. However, it was only when I entered their world, that I realized why they would never want to come out and speak to us. The reason that I sighted was that no one wants to listen to them. Sinason (2010) brings out a paradigm where she talks about the handicap in us, the so-called “normal-neurotics”(1991), of not being able to communicate with people with learning difficulties in their words, helping us see the reality of where the true handicap is.

Carlin (2011) similarly points that some people with multiple learning disabilities are still communicating with the early based communication system, which people with the spoken word find difficult to understand.

Case vignette –Kriti (Girl, Age 6 – Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder)

“Dumb, stupid, senseless. What will she understand? She doesn’t have the brains for that.” I wonder whether her parents actually believed in these words for their child, or was it something that they had come to suppose, or was it others’ perception that was arresting them to think in such a manner.

I always encouraged parents and adults around the child, to focus on building up a positive self-image of the child. Although if constantly the child was made to feel inferior about herself or made to believe that her opinions did not matter and her thoughts were worthless, why would she want to speak to us? If I were Kriti, I would also keep my thoughts locked inside me. The motivation to speak and break the barrier of this communication, which was anyway so difficult for them, was not being helped by us in anyway.

Case vignette – Pavan (Boy, Age 3 – Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder)

At the same time last year in 2014, I started working with a 3-year-old boy who was also diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was going for speech therapy and came to join the school as well as our set-up, for therapeutic support. DMP was suggested, and the same approach was taken on by the therapist, to encourage positive self–image by the parents for the child. In supervision, I discovered the value of being beside the child and that was enough sometimes. Every positive sequel deserved a celebration. Pavan’s mother was also a part of his first session and she said, “He has never connected like this before.” This relationship building plus connecting with the child was explained to the parents, which was well accepted and appreciated as a child centered approach. The parents would constantly support the child and celebrate everything positive the child did, which was helpful for his development and eventually helped in his speech as well.

Case vignette – Nanu (Girl, Age 21 – Diagnosed with severe Mental Retardation)

Nanu was described to have profound learning difficulties. When Nanu came to the center she had very poor eye contact, and would not be responsive to anything we said. I started working with her, having faith that through DMP we will be able to connect with her, however, I could not foretell the progress DMP would have with her. I had to reassure myself in the practice and started to instill a positive self-image for her. I kept her aware of her body, her fast head movements, her drooling, her rocking, her hands shaking. I started to put on a variety of music to see what she liked; and of course Bollywood was bound to click. Nanu has shown improvement beyond my anticipations. Nanu still continues DMP as well as developmental therapy at the center. She has started to produce some words by which she tries to communicate, gives excellent eye contact and shares emotions, when she wants to display them. She has started to be productive around the house also, sometimes by serving water to guests who come home.

Conclusion:

In the cases discussed above, I trust that when children feel cherished, it gives them the opportunity to display/express their skills, as they can see their positive image in the eyes of their elders. This is the positive self-image that DMP tries to create in the child, which helps the child value relationships altogether. I hope this article has been helpful for the readers in seeing the effects of DMP on children and individuals with profound learning difficulties, as well as the importance of encouraging them to have a positive self-image.

References:

  • Butté. C., Unkovich, G., & Whelan, D., P. Lacey (ed.) (2012). Turning, listening, moving closer, as you speak, when you dance: Arts Therapies for adults with profound and complex needs. London. Life is for Living. PMLD Link. Journal Spring. (Vol. 23, issue 68, p.22-25).
  • Carlin, E., Billingsley, J., H. Daly, Fergusson. A (ed.) (2011). TALK TO ME – Intensive Interaction: My Only Language. Speaking Up – Being Heard. PMLD Link. Journal Spring. (Vol. 24, issue 71, p.2-4).
  • Goldbart, J. & Carlton, S. (2010) Communication and people with the most complex needs: What works and why this is essential. Research Institute for Health and Social change/Mencap. Retrieved from http://www.mencap.org.uk.
  • Lacy, P., H. Daly, Fergusson. A (ed.) (2011). Listening to Challenging Behaviour. Speaking Up – Being Heard. PMLDLink. Journal Spring. (Vol. 23, issue 68, p.7-9).
  • Liedloff, J. (1991). Normal Neurotics like us. The Liedloff society for the continuum concept. Retrieved from http://www.continuum-concepr.org/reading/neurotics.html.
  • Sinason, V. (2010). Mental Handicap and the Human Condition. London: Free Association Books.
  • Thurman, S., H. Daly, Fergusson. A (ed)(2011) .Is Communication a Human Right for People with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities?. Speaking Up – Being Heard.PMLDLink. Journal Spring. (Vol.23, issue 68, p.10-14).
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