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The transformational power of the arts

April 22, 2017

The arts have the power to transform lives. Here at Ohio State, faculty and students are using creativity to help those with autism express themselves in new ways.

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Liv Tschantz’s experience helping children with special needs goes back to her days in grade school. Back then, her mom encouraged her to read books to classmates who had developmental disabilities.

“My mom has always taught me to be very accepting of others, that we all are equal no matter what,” says Tschantz, a senior in Ohio State’s Department of Dance. “I’ve always just tried to be a very inclusive person.”

Tschantz carried these thoughts with her throughout her education and always looked for ways to help others. When she enrolled at Ohio State, it made perfect sense to combine this passion for helping others with her other passion — dance. The university’s array of opportunities allows Tschantz and other students with unique interests and talents to turn their passions into something with purpose. So last semester, Tschantz began teaching dance to students at Bridgeway Academy, a Columbus school that focuses on educating children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

She and a fellow dance student went to Bridgeway Academy one day a week where they taught children of all different ages. There were no complicated dance moves, no grades. They simply asked the kids what they wanted to hear (Katy Perry was their first choice by a landslide, Tschantz adds) and then they got the students up and moving.

“We put the song on and you just see these kids just come to life,” Tschantz says.

“Dance, and the arts in general, is a way for them to express themselves without having to speak, without having to be touched, without having to do things they’re not comfortable with. I think watching that process has been so rewarding,” she adds.

The other dance student who joined her was Danielle Fishman, an Ohio State senior who fell in love with dance when she was a child, and now hopes to pass along that passion to others. “(The students) really enjoy it,” she says. “It’s also pretty common that as people with autism get older, exercise is an issue. Just anything to get them moving is helpful. And it also helps with communication. The more they move and the more they feel comfortable, it also opens up different means of communication.”

Conference at Ohio StateOhio State hosted a conference in 2015 that highlighted how the arts can help those with autism spectrum disorder.Shakespeare and AutismThe Shakespeare and Autism project focused on improving social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Dr. Shari Savage is an assistant professor in Ohio State’s Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy. She organized a conference at Ohio State in 2015 that explored the positive ways that arts can impact people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

“Occupational therapists often use creative activities such as dance, music, theater, drawing, painting and more as methods to assist those with ASD,” she says, adding that engaging in the arts can improve motor skills, attention, cognitive processing, problem solving and other socialization skills.

“The visual arts offer unique opportunities for ASD individuals to express themselves in myriad ways, allowing for meaningful growth in communication and personal connection,” she says.

In fact, recent research out of Ohio State shows the powerful impact of the arts on children with ASD. Researchers focused on 14 children who took part in the Shakespeare and Autism project, a unique collaboration involving Ohio State’s Nisonger Center, Wexner Medical Center, Department of Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Children learned the Hunter Heartbeat Method, a rhythm exercise that taught the children skills like imitation, observation and communication.

Children who took part in the study showed improvement in their social skills and their ability to engage in social relationships, according to Dr. Marc Tasse, director of Ohio State’s Nisonger Center and co-author of the study.

“These children are taught these core skills in a very relaxed and playful environment, where it's almost like they're not aware they're being taught,” he says.

Kevin McClatchy, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, says this groundbreaking effort allowed children to build self-esteem and develop new skills.

“The arts (and theatre, in particular) afford an active opportunity to encourage social interaction in a safe and supportive environment,” he says.

McClatchy adds that the unique program is even stronger because there’s data to show it really works.

“Without the Department of Theatre’s partnership with the Nisonger Center, the project would be limited in scope and capability,” he says. “It is precisely this innovative collaboration of inspired art and nimble, ground-breaking science that has allowed us to reach the children we have, and has generated the vast, exciting potential for the future.”

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