Teaching the Arts to Children with Autism

Seated in a semicircle, a cluster of children gazed expectantly at the woman before them as she smiled and thumped an African drum at the Ackerman Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Solutions.

As she signaled each child, they shouted their names and she drummed jubilantly in response.

“Our name is our most important thing,” advised the woman, Smith Center teaching artist Linda Austin. “So always take pride in who you are.”

Beyond just a self-esteem boost, this was important practice in holding a basic conversation.

This was one of many lessons Smith Center teaching artists provided to roughly 60 children with autism in March in a special visit to the Ackerman Center, part of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ (UNLV) School of Medicine.

Spanning a wide range of ages, the children participated in music and dance-driven workshops that focused on social skills, which children on the autism spectrum can have difficulty mastering.

“It’s very important to us to involve arts and music in how we teach our kids. It keeps them engaged and makes it fun,” said Desirae Wingerter, board certified assistant behavior analyst with the Ackerman Center. “We definitely focus on creating and developing relationships, which not only helps them with friendships, but also for the future if they’re going to be interacting with a coworker or boss.”

Funded by generous donations to The Smith Center, the visit was provided at no cost to the Ackerman Center or families of the participating children.

Allotting drumsticks to each child, Austin led them through counting rhythms, memorizing patterns and dancing to a beat.

Down the hall, fellow teaching artist Shaquida Vergo led groups of children in choreography to pop songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

“With the music and the movement, they don’t have time to go off into space. They’re in the moment, which is awesome,” Vergo said in between dance rounds. “I’m open to suggestions from them, because if you allow them to help and be a part of the process, then they want to be there.”

Visits from Smith Center teaching artists correspond well with programs at the Ackerman Center, which teaches a variety of daily living skills to children with autism, said Program Manager Jamie Johnson.

“The children’s attention and compliance is high every time we do something with The Smith Center,” Johnson said, referring to a previous workshop for children with autism The Smith Center arranged with artist and illusionist Kevin Spencer. “I think it’s the creative arts aspect, the opportunity for them to bring out their inner creativity.”

This isn’t the only innovative approach to integrating the performing arts and individuals with special needs.

September 19-24, The Smith Center will present the touring Broadway production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.” Based on the bestselling book, the show portrays a 15-year-old with an extraordinary brain, who is intelligent but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life.

For more information about this production — or about The Smith Center’s additional Education and Outreach programs — visit www.thesmithcenter.com.

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