Dance may be able to help kids with autism. A new study aims to find out

Posted at 1:02 PM, Jan 20, 2020

NEWARK, Del. — For James Griffin, his afternoon movement class is so much more than a therapy session.

“He loves to come. He'll say to me, 'go dance,' " said his mother, Rachelan Griffin. “So, he's excited. He wants to go.”

James is on the autism spectrum and is part of a study at the University of Delaware that is looking at whether dance and other coordinated movements — involving yoga and music — can help children with autism. Dr. Anjana Bhat’s research involves 40 kids.

“What we know is that children with autism have fewer connections between brain areas,” Bhat said. “So dancers — because they use their whole body, they move through space, they move with others — that promotes connections between multiple brain regions.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1.7% of all children in the country fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.

And that number is growing. Back in 2000, 1 out of every 150 children born in the U.S. had autism. As of 2014, the most recent year of available data, it was 1 out of 59.

Bhat said her research isn’t just about improving brain connections for children with autism, but also personal connections as well.

"Most importantly, you make friends," Bhat said. "Because when you dance with others, you make connections with others, and then you develop self-confidence as a dancer and, lastly, you develop a sense of belonging.

Griffin said it’s a difference she sees in her son.

“It makes me cry all the time, just out of happiness,” the mother said. “Having a child that's kind of locked in his own world all the time, having him come out and show you a little bit of what's going on in his head is — you can't even put a price on it.”

For more information on Bhat’s work and movement suggestions for children with autism, click here.