PANA — When 3-year-old Mia Reynolds falls during dance class, volunteer Maggie West takes her to the sidelines, stays with her and periodically encourages her to rejoin the group.
Mia has a mild form of autism, and the class Erica Matthews is teaching is part of the Autism and Movement Project and designed for children with special needs.
Classmate Lindsay Yates, 7, tries covering her ears against Mia’s wails but quickly puts them down. “Arms out!” Matthews commands. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!”
Most of the children try to move the way she moves, checking themselves in full-length mirrors to see if they’re doing it right. Within minutes, Mia joins a game similar to musical chairs, lying flat on the floor with the other students whenever the music stops.
“Jump!” she squeals.
The word is one of 40 to 50 in the girl’s vocabulary, a threefold increase since the class began in the spring. Mia’s mother, Ossie Reynolds of Pana, said the class not only is helping the girl become more verbal but also helping her follow directions.
“She notices people in the room with her now, and her imitation skills have improved drastically,” Reynolds said. “This is helping her be part of the group.”
Such testimonies are music to Matthews’ ears and why the classroom aide at Pana’s Lincoln Elementary School sought the training she needed to teach the classes.
She became interested in helping children with autism when Connor Taylor, now 9 and one of her students, was in preschool and her mother, Dana Frailey, was Connor’s aide.
Matthews first went to the DanceLife Centre in Charleston several times after Julia Boyd began her Dragonflies program there in 2011 for people with special needs.
Boyd already was certified to teach Autism Movement Therapy in her classes, and Matthews decided to go to the AMT Center in Los Angeles and become certified as well. “It’s exciting to have somebody inspired by what I was doing,” Boyd said.
Autism Movement Therapy was created by Joanne Lara. It is an interhemispheric sensory integration technique that incorporates movement, music and positive behavior support strategies.
Matthews began teaching classes in April and has about 20 children enrolled. Not all of them have autism, however.
Lindsay Yates of Pana, for example, has femoral retroversion and is in the class to improve her ability to use her legs.
Alysia Combs of Pana said she’s seen increased confidence in both her sons, Ethan, 12, and Owen, 6. “Ethan likes helping the smaller kids,” she said, “and Owen no longer needs five hugs an hour.”
She also remembers what Ethan said after his first class: “Mom, they like me!”
Amanda and Clark Taylor of Pana said their son Connor previously could not tell them what he wanted because of his autism.
He also pays more attention to what other people say, tries to play with other children in his class at school and makes more eye contact.
“If you tell him he’s going to do something, he’ll hold you to it,” Clark Taylor said. “He used to be up and down all the time, but now he’s more on an even keel.
“This class has made a big difference.”