Trudi Schoop & Autism

Trudi Schoop’s “Won’t You Join the Dance?” is a biographical essay about Schoop’s work with schizophrenic patients in California mental hospitals in the 1940s. Through cutting edge dance therapy, Schoop found a way to communicate with her patients through movement.

My oldest son Christopher has severe autism, and I’ve been working hard to not only heal him of his most distressing symptoms, but also to find a way to connect with him. One of the therapies I’ve received training in is called Sonrise. Sonrise was developed by Bears and Samahria Kaufman in the 1970s as a way to connect with their son Raun, who developed autism. Unlike traditional autism therapies, which help a child develop an “appropriate” action through trial and repetition, Sonrise focuses on connecting with your child. Instead of discouraging self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming – such as hand flapping, jumping, or squealing – Sonrise encourages you join your child in the stim. The thought is that if you are able to join your child in their world, you will develop a connection which will then encourage your child to join you in your world. Raun Kaufman no longer exhibits any signs of autism and the Sonrise program has helped countless families. I was amazed when reading “Won’t You Join the Dance?” at how similar the Sonrise principles are to Schoop’s methods for helping her schizophrenic patients.

I haven’t been able to implement a full-time 40 hour per week Sonrise program as recommended (because Christopher is in school and I go to work). I feel guilty about that (which I have to let go of) and wonder if I was able to do that if we would have made more progress. But, I try to incorporate the Sonrise principles when I interact with him and work with him on a one-on-one basis. When he is engaged in an activity, I try to join him (unless he is doing something destructive). This makes him happy, more engaged with me, and then he does initiate more interaction with me. For example, if he is playing with blocks on the floor, I’ll join him in this even if what we end up doing is scattering them and then gathering them up over and over. I’ll find that when he tires of this, he’ll sit with me for awhile or bring me a book to read to him. Though I haven’t recovered him from autism, I do feel this has enabled me to make a meaningful connection with him. It has increased our communication, and I am usually able to tell what he wants even without words. He has even started saying a few words.

What is really amazing is how naturally my other children do this. My younger son will take a cue from Christopher and play with him and soon a wrestling match or chasing game will be in full swing. I guess before the rules and decorum of society are drilled into us, this is how we communicate and connect at an early age. I am grateful that they have this relationship and connection, and try to encourage it even when it gets a little rough (they are boys after all).

Though there are many challenges to living with autism, there are many gifts and lessons as well. One of these is the knowledge that spoken language is not the only way – or even the best way – to communicate. Movement is a powerful tool for connecting and healing, and there is no one right way that everyone needs to be. When we try to force a behavior, we may get that behavior but we’ll lose the connection. But connecting through movement encourages the whole self to focus on one thing, bring about change, growth and healing naturally.

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