A solid embodied approach for learning disabilities, autism and mental health!

Dance Movement Psychotherapy is a solid pathway for patients with learning disabilities and autism and indeed mental health issues as it offers a way into working at the level of 'feeling'. It is another chance at relationship, creativity; self esteem, recognition of their needs . Another chance at communication, connection and expressing themselves in the world.

It is through our bodies that we know the world. It is through our bodies that we know other people and I believe this is the same for every human and animal too! We do not think first and then know the world, rather we learn about it through movement. The baby starts to move and stretch in responses to pleasure or pain. we don't have to think if we are hungry or not, or think if we like someone or not; or if we are tired or need comfort, protection, friendship e.t.c.


When there is a full embodied connection that is helped to grow, that is watered and given warmth through the core conditions that Carl Rogers taught us and through embodied presence (as it is not enough just to have empathy you need a body that can contain your clients) then they have a beautiful opportunity to discover and recover  (if there has been trauma) themselves and others through their feeling body system.


"Our instinctual feeling-programs are the foundation for what allows us to plan and move ahead with purpose and direction. It is the fabric of what connects us to one another.When this critical map becomes disordered and maladaptive with trauma or protracted stress, as a consequence, we simply become lost"

Peter A. Levine, PhD (IN AN Unspoken Voice)


A full embodied connection means that the therapist has her whole body attuned to the client’s feelings and emotional experiences. It is the tendency to balance and integrating of the different aspects of the self, the sensory,emotional and the mental (Katya Bloom, The Embodied Self, 2006). For example, your client may feel so alive when playing with balls but they stop this because it is silly, it is not academic; it is not reaching educational or therapeutic assessment levels. However, what it is doing as a physiological and biological level is lightening the heart and showing the way towards connection, containment, understanding and love because that is how it is being held. And this is something that is registered in the body.

The culture, society is very mind orientated towards thinking about and intellectualising everything, we can see this in our schools, churches and clubs.  The heart has been taken out of everything! We all learn to navigate the culture and society we are born into and for those with learning disabilities’ and trauma of some kind navigating these stormy seas must be terrifying. It’s terrifying for the healthiest of us so imagine what it is like if you have a disability.

As an example someone with disabilities may feel very shy precisely because of their disability. A speech and language therapist may say that this person does not like to move their body to music, they are shy and therefore it is not good for them. But, deep inside the person is an ancestral, primitive need to dance and be seen, it is what makes their heart jump with joy! But nobody knows this, they have never told anyone, they have learnt to hide because of their disability and on top of this are in a culture that is working from the mindset of do, go get more, be the best, reach higher, work harder and not from  the heart, of acceptance, joy, togetherness, celebration and union. So, the heart says sparkles when playing and dancing and the school and therapist say no its okay you don’t need to if you are shy rather than being able to  see what it is really that their heart wants to do and allowing this pathway to life to open up.

Oftentimes it is only in experiencing this from of psychotherapy that one realises and understands through their body that indeed they like it, either in a playful moment, a spontaneous movement; a flowing movement or a silent still position or in the sharing. When the heart is given the space to jump with joy then this is a moment that has the potential for that person to feel life, to know life, their basic human right.

Sign language too is another brilliant language but it is not the language of the heart. The non-verbal world is the realm that we are working into through these movement psychotherapy sessions and it is here in the body that the pre-verbal material can be accessed. So for me it is a way of working with the whole of the person that reaches the body and the soul to access what came here to be expressed, the unique gifts inside each person.

Having fun through drama and stories is good for confidence building and bringing people together but what really matters is that the voice of the heart is understood, heard and nurtured in a way where they realise creativity in all the little things in their life, not just in the production of a story or play or in the making of masks for example. But, where they feel solidarity, friendship and the need for care; to realise that the vital energy of the person is their immune system functioning, realise that the spirituality is very important and is given a pathway through which to journey with this.

Here are some snippets from my research into the power of dance movement psychotherapy for children with learning disabilities:

Object relation theories in psychoanalysis are utilised as a tool for many dance therapists and concern the psyche and the body (Bloom, 2006). Dance movement therapy is a form of psychotherapy rooted in dance and movement that increases self-esteem and awareness and offers growth and change within a therapeutic relationship (Payne, 2006). Through this relationship, the therapist is present to the spontaneity of the moment-to-moment interactions allowing her embodied and cognitive self to be open to inform the therapeutic relationship thus understanding the fine line between dance and psychotherapy (Butté and Unkovich, 2009).


The technique of mirroring an individual’s movement can be applied to establish trust and build the therapeutic relationship, which is nurtured sensitively through the therapists’ ability to mirror, echo, sustain, follow and enlarge the child’s movement range and expressions. She is trained to be sensitive to movement language as it relates to the psychological, motor and cognitive development of the child (Leventhal, 1980).


As a dance therapist, being familiar with one’s own movement repertoire is essential as the sharing and mirroring of movements is an art, as (Kalish, 1976) points out and in respect of e.g. the autistic child, if the therapist is not sensitive in her way of intervention, he could withdraw more into his autism. This is why the therapist must be skilled at finding the essence of movement patterns of this child, as this is what he will respond to.


The experience of joy and pleasure is fundamental throughout the (dmp) approach and a good relationship with the therapist central to the process (Levy, 1988). In regards the needs of these children, these are understood as them needing a way to express their emotions and have the chance to address their communication problems (Karkou and Sanderson, 2000).


The (dmp) therapist uses touch with the awareness of using her body as a container in collaboration with the force of gravity (Anzieu, 1989). This is possible through the taking of the weight of the children with (pmld) in order to give them security and confidence, e.g. in exercises such as containing and supporting (Sherbourne, 2001). According to (Cohen, 1993), the first senses to develop in the baby are movement and touch which suggests its real importance.


The (dmp) therapist working with learning disabled child places prime importance on the development of the body image. Having a good background in dance, they use praise and touch. Praise in the context of person-centred therapy where the empowerment of the individual is paramount through the core conditions (Rogers, 1980) of unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy. That is, avoiding disempowering attitudes in the relationship.


As (dmp) therapists we are informed by Rudolf Laban’s movement vocabulary (Laban, 1960), which encompasses effort, space, harmony and body/shape as a means of expression, communication and developing the kinaesthetic sense as well as awakening creativity (Bloom, 2006). In addition, the person centred approach to human relationships that is the foundation of the researchers training and practice. It works with the idea of trusting the persons innate tendency to find fulfilment of his personal potential, the actualising tendency, as oppose to acting as the expert and directing him. In order for this to happen the psychological environment described by (Rogers, 2003) needs to pose no psychological or physical threat to the client. This is achieved through an empathic therapist who is being congruent and accepting.


These dance movement psychotherapy sessions work into the material of the body at the level of each person awakening the dormant roots that want to reach towards life through a psychotherapeutic pathway that holds the persons psyche and the soma. The child / adult with learning disabilities has the chance to develop and grow in their relationship with the earth and in their own beautiful spirituality too.

Please call me if you would like to enquire into sessions.



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