Dancing into the Hearts of Autistic Children

Emily McKinney

Emily McKinney

Radford University junior Emily McKinney has a passion for dance and a compassionate heart. That combination inspires her to volunteer her time for those with special needs, most recently teaching autistic children to dance and express themselves through movement.

"It has been my dream for a very long time to work with these kids," said McKinney, a Fredericksburg native. "I've known since I was 12 that I wanted to spend my life teaching kids with special needs how to dance. I had taught dance before and had taught in the classroom, but I found that I most enjoyed combining two worlds that often aren’t seen together."

With a strong belief that dance allows the children to be their "true selves," McKinney said she tries to steer away from strict dance techniques, instead adopting a freestyle approach with her students.

"It is so rewarding to reach out to them. The smiles on their faces make all the hard work totally worth it," she said. "They do not have to hide anything or try to fit in and be 'normal.' They know the classroom or their house is a safe environment, and they will be much more open."

Through dance, McKinney said, her autistic students have a vehicle to express emotions they otherwise would not communicate. "They get to display their true personalities, which can be amazing to see," she said. "They are so honest and vulnerable, it is hard not to cry sometimes when watching and interacting with them."

Dance Professor Deborah McLaughlin said her Creative Dance for Children class addresses work with individuals and groups with special needs through video, discussion and analysis of work she has done in the past. That includes teaching dance and movement to children with physical disabilities and to elders with Alzheimer's.

"I have seen the way dance breaks through all kinds of challenges that seem impossible to transcend, and I emphasize that in class," McLaughlin said.

The professor said she has not often seen a student as young as McKinney who not only comprehends the value of dance and movement for those with special needs but can also successfully implement it.

"Emily's own love of dance leans toward ballet, which is very structured," McLaughlin said. "For her to be able to transcend her own aesthetic preference and utilize an approach closer to modern dance or creative movement reveals her commitment to truly helping those children."

In November, McKinney combined her charitable interests with her academics for her choreography capstone project, titled "Roses are Yellow: Seeing the World through Different Eyes."

"Emily choreographed an exceptional performance for an independent study in which she challenged the dancers' and audience's perceptions of disabilities," McLaughlin said. "The project demonstrated how, regardless of your disability, dance can still be a viable part of your life."

McKinney, majoring in dance and elementary education with a minor in special education, does her volunteer work through public school systems and in private sessions. She has worked for four years with two autistic children in one family. One is nonverbal, and the other has a severe vision disorder.

Patience is the key, McKinney said, because standard ways of communicating have to be adjusted and readjusted.

“It can be very challenging getting the kids to understand me until I figure out how they work best and they understand how I work,” she said. “Many kids do not understand language as we do, so that can be tough. Some students use sign language or hand signs but not always American Sign Language. That makes it very difficult to work in a group, so I tend to work one on one."

Her reward is "to see the light bulb go on," she said. "The smiles on their faces make all the time and hard work worth it. Most of them get so much joy out of dancing, it doesn’t seem possible."

McKinney plans to go to graduate school to earn an autism certificate and study special education. Lessons learned already will be invaluable in the future, she said, and she will continue to find her inspiration in her students' progress.

Some people never find their true calling, she said, but "I came to RU knowing what my dream job would be. I chose my major based on that. I want to continue doing this as long as I can—the kids make going to work every day a joy.”

Feb 16, 2012
Keith Hagarty