Embracing dance as more than a graceful step in autism therapy


Patrick Donelson always reacted to music, so his parents always wanted to advance their son’s enjoyment of it.

But not with instruments. Not with concerts. Not with iTunes.

They wanted an activity, hobby or skill involving music to open up Patrick’s quiet persona.

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WHERE TO WATCH: Don’t miss the dramatic finale of Dance League on ASN

Today, dancing is doing what Christina and Brendan Donelson hoped for their autistic son.

“We thought dancing would be good for him,” Christina said.

It is, according to research in 1985 showing autistic children significantly benefited from dancing and movement therapy. The findings have gained momentum in the last five years. According to a Psychology Today report in April 2014, dance/movement therapy can help autistic children channel communication patterns into “dances of relationships.”

Patrick started when he was 11 and for four years now he has waltzed, tangoed, foxtrotted and quick-stepped his way out of his shyness and into the heart of dance fans with his ability and charm.

Patrick competed in the Millennium Dance Championships televised on ASN, and sitting down and being interviewed along side dance partner Shalene Archer was another big step for him. With his bow tie in place and cummerbund secure, he sat as if he’d been through countless media inquiries.

He said he wasn’t scared when he took his first lesson, he just wanted to be healthy enough to dance. That started a small fitness routine and, Patrick said proudly, a cognitive routine.

“Yeah, I do exercises for my stomach muscles,” he said. “My shoulders need to be pushed down too. I need to pretend that there is a force field around me. I can’t penetrate it or overpower it. I need to stay within my bubble.”

Patrick’s ability isn’t limited to one dance. He can  perform the waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot and quickstep.

“My favorite dance is the foxtrot,” he said. “I like all five dances but the just foxtrot is my favorite.”

Patrick practices twice a week and can sequence all his steps in his mind after practicing.

“I really think I’ve improved,” he said. “I’m developing into a teenager now. I feel like I’ve always wanted to dance.”

Above: Patrick Donelson and  Shalene Archer compete in the Millennium Dance Championships, which you can watch on ASN. (Alex Rowan/DanceSport Photography)
Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.