Steve Zylius / University Communications Assistant professor of drama Andrew Palermo talks about his dance workshops for children with autism in UC Irvine’s Nixon Theatre.

Autism moves

Teaching children the language of dance

Children with autism sometimes spin in circles, waving their hands. They can appear to be performing a strange kind of dance, but to Andrew Palermo, their movements speak volumes.

The UC Irvine assistant professor of drama, a director and choreographer of musical theater and concert dance, has created classes that encourage kids with autism to express themselves through body language. Now he’s bringing his unique workshops to UC Irvine’s Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Southern California, in Orange.

“My ultimate goal is the same one I’ve had for my entire creative life: to tell stories through movement,” Palermo says. “I don’t have a child with autism. I don’t live with it every day. I just want to give a positive voice to those who do.”

Palermo spent years performing on Broadway, including in the original company of “Wicked” and in a host of other musicals. After joining the Claire Trevor School of the Arts faculty last fall, where he teaches dance within the drama department, he got to know Dr. Joseph Donnelly, the Center for Autism’s director. The two have forged a partnership to integrate the arts into special needs.

“The classes help kids get in touch with their bodies and learn how they work. They become more adept at the exercises, and they start to understand the cause and effect of their movements,” Palermo says. “We’ll pick a topic such as water, and we’ll all stand in a circle and create a dance about water. What’s cool is that the kids really come out of their shells.

“Over the course of a few workshops, I’ve seen children who started out withdrawn run into the class, throw off their shoes and start stretching. Kids want to move, and the classes give them permission to do that in a structured way.”

Palermo first became interested in autism in 2007, when he saw a CNN documentary about Amanda Baggs, who has made videos about what it’s like to live with the disorder.

“Before that, I didn’t know anything about autism beyond the 1988 movie ‘Rain Man,’ so it was eye-opening. I decided it was something I wanted to explore,” he says.

As artistic director of dre.dance, a contemporary company he co-founded with childhood friend Taye Diggs, Palermo created a piece inspired by Baggs called “beyond.words.” Since its debut at Wichita State University six years ago, the work has been performed across the country.

In tandem with “beyond.words,” Palermo began holding his movement workshops for children with autism. While it’s still too soon to know what effect the classes might have on participants, he and others already have noticed positive benefits.

“I’ve been told by the parents and pathologists that movement therapy does seem to open kids up in ways they weren’t before,” he says. The director of an autism center in Minnesota reported that a boy who took the workshop began – for the first time in his life – articulating things he wanted. That’s reward enough for Palermo.

His goal, he says, is to simply help such kids connect with the world.

“Most people see autism as a disease to be cured,” he says. “My attitude is, ‘Let’s work with who you are at this moment and not try to fix it.’” In short, for now, just let the children dance.

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