When the Spring 2014 semester came to a close I was confronted by the long expanse that is “summer break.” With no required readings or writings in sight, I decided to use the summer months as an opportunity to engage in critical self-reflection, workshops, and seminars that could complement my research interests. This decision manifested in reading texts from my wish-list, acquiring some new improvisation skills at Movement Research’s MELT Workshops in New York City, and becoming certified in Autism Movement Therapy. Because my writing and thinking primarily exist at the intersections of dance and disability studies with a focus on autism and developmental disabilities, investigating a movement practice designed for and marketed to individuals with Autism seemed a worthy endeavor.
Autism Movement Therapy (AMT) was created by Joanna Lara, a former special education teacher in California and now an adjunct professor in Special Education at National University. Designed to exist as a 45-minute class, AMT intends to work on sensory integration using music, movement, and language as a conduit for processing information across the two hemispheres of the brain. For example, a primary component of the choreographed class asks participants to make a sound in relation to their movement, such as fluttering the lips while raising both arms. This and other exercises demonstrated throughout the class encourage multi-tasking and facilitate multiple forms of communication. Choreographically, the standard AMT exercises work within the sagittal plane of the body, as the limbs often reach across the space to signify the connection between the two halves of the brain.
What I found most exciting about AMT was its reliance on improvisation and composition in addition to existing as a set of choreographed therapeutic exercises. Within each section of an AMT class (a warm-up, moving across and around the room, working in groups, and crafting a final phrase), participants are encouraged to move outside of the given patterns. This can include asking a participant to come to the front of the room and lead a short movement pattern of their choosing, or having participants find ways to embody their names and teach that phrase to the rest of the class. These directives are not laced with movement expectations. Instead, they provide space for interpretations that range from isolating body parts to moments of stillness. What Lara calls “The Sense Poem” is an advanced exercise for participants who have attended several sessions. Each participant constructs a sentence about a specific object or subject in relation to one of the five senses and then develops movement in conjunction with those words. By teaching the sentence to others in the class, participants collaboratively craft a group dance.
The composition tools offered in the class encourage choreographers, not technical masters, to emerge. Thinking on one’s feet, interpreting ideas, and working with others are some of the many skills facilitated by AMT, all of which are made more vivid when situated within the epistemologies of dance.
The certification workshop I attended was held at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Lara offers workshops all over the world, and an upcoming workshop (February 21, 2015) will be held at my alma mater, Marymount Manhattan College. Obtaining a certification is costly, so I set up a fundraiser through a crowdsourcing website to help offset the cost. I have and will continue to share the information gleaned during the certification process with the donors, all of whom I thank again for allowing the experience to happen!
For more info, check out Lara’s site: http://autismmovementtherapy.com/site/