30 June 2023

Building connection through the creative arts

While activities such as mindful colouring, crafting and dance are widely-appreciated ways to find calm, focus and joy in our day, in this interview, Mackenzie Henderson-Wraight explains how creative arts therapy takes such self-soothing activities to a whole new level.

Having discovered the possibilities of dance therapy as a teenager through a brush with her own mental health, Mackenzie went on study Psychology and Dance as an undergraduate, then Dance Movement Therapy as a postgraduate, to become a qualified Dance Therapist and the Programmes & Clinical Manager at Dance and Arts Therapy New Zealand.

Here, she explains how creative arts therapy supports communication skills, physical development and confidence, and gives tips you can use at home.

What is creative arts therapy?

Unlike taking art or dance classes, arts and dance therapy sessions largely focus on the process. People do come to my dance therapy groups thinking they’re going to learn steps or how to perform. But it’s actually a process of exploration. The same goes for arts therapy. Although we do discuss the product, the emphasis is on the creative process.

Often, people are nervous about the idea of dance therapy, whether disabled or not. They think, ‘I can’t dance,’ or ‘I can’t move.’ My stance is: if you have a body, you can dance. If you can breathe, then you’re already moving, and you’re already dancing. The movements we do in a session can be really small, building from your breath. When we’re breathing, our ribcages are going out; our shoulders are going up and down. Can we expand on that and move it to the arms? Now we’re taking up more space. What’s it like to take up space?

For those with physical disabilities, group therapy classes such as these can be confronting—to be in contact with one’s body and so visible—but once the hurdle of ‘giving it a go’ is overcome, the process of building connections and confidence begins.

How does creative arts therapy help people with disabilities and neurodiversity?

There is the physical support side as well as the self-expression, creative side.

Dance therapy focuses on various areas. It could be coordination: for example, ‘Can you move your arms and your legs at the same time? Can you move your right arm and your left the opposite way at the same time for a walking motion?’ Or even just your core, ‘How can you hold it while your body is moving? How well can you support yourself from your core out to the distal parts of your body?’

Arts therapy focuses more on fine motor skills. Using a marker requires dexterity. Being able to take the lid off, hold it in your hand and draw a shape requires a lot of hand-eye coordination and, of course, being able to physically move your hand. We look to expand on what you can do. If someone’s able to hold a marker, take the lid off and draw a shape, we’ll try a pencil or pastel, then a paintbrush and paint. All of a sudden, we’re exploring the expressive side alongside the practical side.

As for neurodiversity, our first-ever dance therapy group was for Autistic children. It’s a fun way to physically focus on the social skills we might want to develop with them, such as understanding and communicating emotions.

To open our children’s groups, we often use a board that has the question, ‘How are you feeling today?’ with words underneath such as happy, sad, angry, nervous, hungry, upset and jealous. They pick one and then express it in a movement. So if I was happy, I might have my hands in the air—’Woop! I’m feeling happy’. Or if I pick jealous, I might have a scrunched-up face and balled fists—’I want something you have!’ If I can figure out my own emotion and how I am feeling today, and a movement that expresses it, I’m both understanding myself and helping other people to understand me too.

A benefit of being in a group is seeing others share how they’re feeling and their movement for their emotion. You’re learning how happiness might look on someone else or what anger feels like and looks like. So we start learning some of those social skills.

There are other areas where movement helps, such as regulating the nervous system. If someone is overwhelmed, self-soothing or stimming behaviours might bring them back into a calmer space. Or, if they are underwhelmed and bored, stimming will keep their nervous system occupied and get them back to the place where they are engaged.

While some children’s stimming might be safe, others might, for example, be hitting their head or biting their arms as stimming behaviours. In dance therapy, we’ll acknowledge that there’s something in that movement that’s really useful but explore how we can do it more safely. We might say, ‘You’re enjoying that contact of your head against the floor. That feels good, but how about we take this foam stick instead? How does that feel on your head? How does it feel on another part of your body?’ Or, ‘I see that biting your arms feels good. Let’s try chewing on a chewy or a piece of rubber or squeezing a ball in our hands, which will get a similar feeling but is safer.’

How do these therapies support communication?

While both dance and art are nonverbal forms of communication, creative arts therapy supports both verbal and nonverbal expression. For example, in our dance sessions, there would always be a greeting, ‘Hello,’ accompanied by a wave. Both communicate a welcome in different ways.

The nonverbal communication might be subtle. If we’ve set up the room with a circle of seats, this communicates, ‘Come and sit with us; join us in the circle.’ That’s a nice welcome without saying anything at all. Similarly, we have rubber spots that are placed on the floor to communicate a point of interest, ‘Maybe I have to sit there; maybe I have to stand here; there’s something important about that space.’ The use of props can communicate a want, an exploration, or a curiosity.

Verbally, there’s a lot of focus on self-expression and patience within creative arts therapies. For many of our clients with disabilities, processing times are longer than for someone who doesn’t have a disability. It’s not uncommon for me to ask the question, ‘How do you want to move?’ Or, ‘What move do you have today?’ And we wait for that person to offer something. We honour that waiting. Sometimes we sit there in silence for a good minute until the person is ready, and that’s welcomed. Patience communicates respect for the decision-making process.

In our children’s groups, we practise social and self-advocacy skills, such as saying, ‘No, stop. I don’t like that,’ or if someone is taking your toy, saying, ‘No, wait’ maybe combined with a nonverbal signal of a flat palm towards the other person. We look at different ways we can use our body to communicate ‘No’ or ‘Stay away.’ Young kids are naturally good at it. If they don’t like someone being near them, they’ll push them away and tell them so. But as we grow up, we need to have different strategies. So we practise respecting our bubble and staying outside other people’s bubbles.

There can be so much communication put into a piece of artwork that’s completely nonverbal. What colours do you choose? Are they your favourite colours, or ones that you hate? Do they look good together, or do they clash? Is it turning into a muddy, mucky mess? What images are you making? If you’re drawing your house, is it done precisely, or is it sloppy and fast? If you are drawing what happened in your day today, are you taking lots of care? Are you chatting about your day, or are you really quiet, focused and honed in?

Then we look at the final product. Has it been done with love and interest? Or was it done in a rush to slap something down on the paper? Is there pride in the finished artwork, or can we just rip it up and chuck it in the bin? With all of those choices, a single word needn’t be spoken, but there’s communication. Even if it’s just the self-expression of, ‘Here’s what my day was like; here’s what’s on my mind. I need to express it and share it.’

What is the best thing about working for this charity?

I work mainly with adults with disabilities. My group is largely 30-40+ years old, so they’ve already lived full lives with their disability. I think the most fulfilling part is when I put on some golden oldies—often disco—and I see people just light up. The more verbal ones sing along and share stories about when in their life they listened to the music.

We have a couple of guys in particular who love busting out some disco moves. It’s great to see that communal joy in a group where everyone is welcome, and they also meet other people who’ve had similar experiences. We’ve all listened to Michael Jackson and The Bee Gees on the radio, so we’re able to look at each other share the ‘Hey, I know that song!’ moment. Then we dance together and express it.

Also, it’s the longer-term feedback. We send out feedback forms where parents tell us about progress in the last couple of terms. One of my favourites, was a young girl who had learned how to ride a bike, how to roller skate and climb trees. These are typical kid things to learn, but for our children with disabilities, there can be extra barriers that make it more difficult. By coming to dance therapy, using her body in new ways, and challenging herself in a safe environment, she got to be able to have those experiences, learn those skills and be just like any other kid her age.

In three words, what does communication mean to you?

Connection, self-expression, sharing.


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