Arts Programs for Kids With Special Needs

By Mimi Slawoff

special needs - infinite flow

Infinite Flow Kids pairs ambulatory dancers and those in wheelchairs for ballroom and hip-hop dancing. PHOTO BY MICHAEL HANSEL

Like most children, those with special needs enjoy being creative and sharing their projects with others. The arts can provide a relaxing and fulfilling activity, and are a safe way to explore feelings and ideas.

“There are many forms of art, and children with autism or other developmental differences may have particular strengths and interests,” says Diane Cullinane, M.D., a developmental pediatrician board certified in pediatrics and neurodevelopmental disabilities, and co-founder of Professional Child Development Associates (PCDA) in Pasadena. Some may be interested in visual sensations such as color, line, angles and shapes. Others may take delight in music and rhythmic movement or the tactile experience of sculpture.

“Not only can a child enjoy their preferred form of sensory experience, they can also use this as motivation to learn a wide variety of new skills,” says Cullinane. “They may improve fine-motor skills as they persist to open a tube of paint, or control a paintbrush.” Adapted arts activities can also be very social, enabling kids to work together on a joint project. From these shared experiences, a child gains more confidence to engage in interactions, express their feelings and advance to higher levels of communication and thinking.

Cullinane recommends selecting an adapted arts program that’s a natural match for your child’s interests. Are they more drawn to visual, sounds or movement? Do they like to act out their favorite drama characters? “Look for a class that emphasizes creativity, rather than asking your child to follow directions,” she says. “The environment should support your child’s regulation, so that they feel calm. You will know if it is a good match because your child will love to go.”

Artistic Butterflies

special needs arts

Students at Mychal’s Art Place glue colored tissue paper onto a large sheet of paper to replicate a painting by Leonid Afremov. PHOTO BY MIMI SLAWOFF

Artist Amanda Lutz-Beheshti holds a photocopy of a painting depicting an evening street scene by artist Leonid Afremov up for a small group of teens and young adults with autism gathered for a class at Mychal’s Learning Place in Hawthorne. “What time of day is this?” she asks.

“Nighttime!” shout the students. But they’re hesitant when asked, “Do you see big groups of color or scattered colors?”

Lutz-Beheshti and the students discuss the painting’s colors before starting their own group art project. They glue crumpled pieces of colored tissue paper onto a large sheet of paper to replicate Afremov’s painting.

Mychal’s Learning Place was founded by Ed Lynch, whose daughter Mychal had special needs and died 20 years ago at age 7. The facility has a kitchen, laundry room and computers. Student artwork adorns the walls.

Adapted art classes are among several social and recreational after-school activities Mychal’s offers for individuals ages 8-22 with autism and other disabilities. Most students are in middle and high school. About 30 kids rotate in groups of 10 to music, cooking, art, dance and other classes.

After students finish high school, they may be eligible to join the Path to Independence adult day program for ages 18-30. Maggie Sherman, 22, has been in the after-school program for several years and hopes to join the adult day program in June when she finishes the Adult Transition Class at Lloyde High School in Lawndale. She’s evolved over the years from a caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly, says her grandmother, Jody Sherman, with whom Maggie lives. The dance and music classes are Maggie’s favorite part of the program and have helped her blossom.

“When Maggie started going to Mychal’s, she could not speak clearly and she was extremely shy. There was no eye contact and she didn’t know how to act in a group setting,” says Jody. “I have always said everyone has a special talent hidden away inside, and the staff [at Mychal’s] knows how to bring it out of our kids.”

Miracles On Stage

special needs- arts -miracle project

At The Miracle Project, kids of all abilities create their own productions and share their interests and ideas. PHOTO COURTESY THE MIRACLE PROJECT

At any drama class, some kids ham it up while others stumble over lines. But The Miracle Project is no ordinary performing group. Created for people ages 5-30 with autism and other challenges, the all-inclusive program welcomes regular kids, too, blending theater, film, music and movement to bring out the best in each child.

“Through their experiences in The Miracle Project they build confidence, and their true voice and talents start to emerge,” says Founder and Creative Director Elaine Hall, known to her students as “Coach E.” Some of those students have even landed roles on TV.

Students play a big role in creating their own productions with trained staff, sharing their interests and ideas. If a child with autism likes dinosaurs, for example, the production might center on that theme and include a dinosaur island, says Hall.

The program is both structured and flexible. It gives breathing room to kids who are used to being told what to do and not do in their daily lives, says Rony Rosenbaum, whose 19-year-old son Michael has Down syndrome and is a veteran participant. “When Michael was younger, he was shy, but after the first season he was a different person. Now he wants to perform,” says Rosenbaum. At home, he and his dad created and update a YouTube video, “Michael Best Life Ever,” featuring Michael’s daily life.

During Miracle Project rehearsals, it’s clear that Michael is a seasoned performer and happy to be there. He smiles and knows his lines for “Journey to Dance Island,” one of this year’s productions. Rehearsals begin with students, staff and volunteers sitting in a large circle on the floor and introducing themselves. They’re encouraged to be creative. Some sing their name, others say it while clapping or stomping. Some mumble after being gently coaxed.

This is where 12-year-old Tara feels at home with peers. Tara has high-functioning autism, and until she joined The Miracle Project five years ago, she had trouble fitting in with schoolmates. “Without The Miracle Project, she would probably be on the computer by herself instead of writing screenplays and songs,” says her mother, Lila.

Free To Dance

special needs arts

Instructors at Free 2 Be Me Dance work at each dancer’s pace and tailor classes to student abilities. PHOTO BY CHRIS PERRY/WILDSIDE STUDIOS

Like any mom, Victoria Kofler wants her 17-year-old daughter, Valena, to have the same experiences as other girls in their El Segundo neighborhood. It wasn’t until she started taking adaptive ballet classes at age 9 at the Free 2 Be Me Dance studio that Valena, who has Down syndrome, found common ground with others.

Free to express herself through music and dance, Valena thrived and her leadership skills emerged. “The teachers saw her leadership skills before I did. They asked her to be a student helper,” says Kofler, who is proud that Valena recently landed a role in her high school’s production of Hairspray.

“Valena is definitely a leader and is often placed in front so the other dancers can follow her,” says program director Colleen Perry, a former ballet dancer and current marriage and family therapist. Perry says she and her instructors work at each dancer’s pace and tailor classes to student abilities. “Levels of functioning vary. That’s why it’s so important to tailor a class to the dignity of each dancer,” says Perry.

Classes are kept small (about 10 dancers) and offered for kids as young as age 2. Movin ’N Groovin classes, for ages 2-7, focus on music and strengthening the bond between parent and child. “It’s rewarding for parents to meet other parents of children with Down syndrome. I think that’s therapeutic,” says Perry.

In the adaptive ballet classes, for ages 7-32, volunteers are paired with one or two dancers. The classes begin with “Who is in the circle today?” where each dancer says (or attempts to say) their name out loud. “This promotes inclusion and identity,” says Perry.

Following warm-up exercises, dancers move on to barre work. At the end of class, students lie down as instructors say positive messages and swirl a scarf lightly over each dancer.

The company has performed in several recital shows, at the Special Olympics in Long Beach and at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.

Blossoming In Ballet

special needs arts

In classes at Ballet For All Kids, about 100 high school students assist, so most classes have a one-to-one volunteer-to-student ratio. PHOTO BY MIMI SLAWOFF

Watching Mallory Fuentes, 13, smile as she confidently dances in class at Ballet For All Kids, it’s hard to imagine that she was afraid to go out in public eight years ago. “She’s like a different girl now,” says her mother, Marcy Moxley. “The program has benefited Mallory physically, emotionally and socially.” Mallory, who was born with infantile spasms, is developmentally delayed.

Mallory fits in well with the group of boys and girls dressed in ballet attire facing a wall-length mirror where they can see themselves dance. Most of the dancers have autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or other disabilities, but some are typical children interested in ballet. “The classes are completely integrated,” says Bonnie Schlachte, who developed the Schlachte Method to teach classical ballet to children with various learning styles. “Every child, no matter their learning style, benefits from the Schlachte style.” The school is open to ages 2 – adult.

Schlachte’s method combines visual, auditory, vestibular and emotional learning styles along with music and props feautred in custom videos featuring Schlachte, a former ballet dancer. Music is composed by her sister. Each student has the same DVD to watch at home.

In class, about 100 high school students assist, so most classes have a 1-to-1 volunteer-to-student ratio. The volunteers are trained to address or ignore certain behaviors, and to help students with dance moves. Some students need help moving their arms or positioning their feet, says volunteer and dancer Lindsay Oberman, 15. “It’s so rewarding to see how happy the kids are when they dance,” she says.

The studio has recitals including staging, lighting and costumes, and this year’s production is “Peter and the Wolf.” “We try to make it a typical studio,” says Schlachte. “My true belief is kids with disabilities are exactly the same as kids out there and should be exposed to the same experiences.”

Art For All

special needs arts

Adapted art classes at Professional Child Development Associates are part of an array of services and programs. PHOTO COURTESY PCDA

Offered for the first time last year, adapted art classes at the nonprofit Professional Child Development Associates in Pasadena enhance an extensive array of specialized services and programs. For art, the children are grouped by age: 5-6, 7-10, and 11-14. The classes have had a calming effect on 8-year-old Sonia Killen, who’s been in a variety of therapy classes at PCDA since birth, when she was diagnosed with DiGeorge syndrome.

“From the start, she loved it,” says Sonia’s mother, Lindi. “I couldn’t believe how well she took off with it. She seems more confident. It’s heartwarming to see her be successful.” Sonia’s favorite project so far is a hamster cage made from construction paper, now home to her toy hamster.

Art instructors at PCDA are trained to work with kids of all abilities, and are aware of any sensitivities a child may have. “Maybe a texture might be scary for somebody. We try to keep a file of each child’s sensory issues so a teacher is already in the know,” says Elaine Chen, head of PCDA’s creative arts department.

Art activities include making animals from a variety of materials, creating projects from recycled containers and making mobiles. Student artwork is sometimes displayed in the community and at PCDA’s recitals and annual variety show. “For non-verbal kids, art is a way for them to express themselves,” says Chen.

Dancers On Wheels

Nothing stops fifth grader Alexander Zaferis from dancing. Not even his wheelchair. Born with cerebral palsy, Alexander has loved music since he was an infant and looks forward to his dance classes. “He is the first one on the dance floor,” says his mom, Melissa.

At Infinite Flow Kids, Alexander can glide around the dance floor with ambulatory kids and others in wheelchairs. The program is part of Infinite Flow, a professional wheelchair ballroom dance company founded by Marisa Hamamoto. The professional dancer was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down by a rare spinal cord disease, but was able to walk out of the hospital two months later.

The experience launched her mission to share the magic of dance with people of all abilities. Hamamoto launched Infinite Flow and Infinite Flow Kids last year and is actively recruiting both ambulatory and wheelchair dancers. The unique dance company pairs ambulatory dancers and those in wheelchairs for ballroom and hip-hop dancing. “The purpose to pairing them up is to break the barriers,” says Hamamoto. “We also do wheelchair-wheelchair [dancing]. We’re trying to promote inclusion.”

The dance program is open to ages 9-18, but kids need to audition to participate. “We expect the kids to take direction and cooperate with each other. Ambulatory kids that have stayed with us are leaders, more than volunteers. They treat everyone as equals,” says Hamamoto.

Ari Arslanian, 9, and his 11-year-old sister, Aline, are ambulatory and enjoy the experience of dancing in Infinite Flow Kids. “I like to be able to experience things with people who do not have all the abilities I do,” says Aline. Her brother, who is friends with Alexander Zaferis, says, “It’s fun to get a chance to learn how to dance with people in wheelchairs. And, I really like the people.”

Special Arts Resources

  • Mychal’s Learning Place, 4901 Rosecrans Blvd., Hawthorne; 11828 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City; 310-297-9333;
  • The Miracle Project, 9390 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-829-7034; 4173 Inglewood Blvd., Culver City, 310-751-1486; 13130 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks, 818-778-7136; 1440 Harvard St., Santa Monica, 310-829-7034;
  • Free 2 Be Me Dance, 1709 Stewart St., Santa Monica; 310-259-8970;
  • Ballet for all Kids, 16422 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 2282 Townsgate Rd., Westlake Village; 141 Triunfo Canyon Rd., Westlake Village;
  • Professional Child Development Association (PDCA), 620 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena; 626-793-7350;
  • Infinite Flow Kids, A Wheelchair Dance Company, Sherman Oaks, 949-267-8751;

Mimi Slawoff is a mom of three and local freelance writer.

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