Andrea Elam’s son seems quirky to people who don’t know him. He has a hard time sitting still, doesn’t look people directly in the eye and has some unusual mannerisms, she explains. People may think he is quirky and hyper, but he is actually "on the spectrum."
Elam knows how it feels to worry about her son when he joins a new group or team and have to explain his “quirks” to the coach or instructor. Inspired by her son and a desire to help other autistic kids learn social skills, Elam has started a free program called Moving Voices for autistic children in northern Westchester. She hopes the program can help children learn how to manage their physical and social skills so they can successfully interact with other kids in regular social situations. The class is held Saturdays at the in Peekskill.
“When you have child who is higher functioning, but on the spectrum, they are mainstreamed in class with everyone. But with social situations like on the baseball team or when they are trying to participate in any group thing, it is so difficult, so challenging….Wouldn’t it be great to give them skills so they don’t have to go through life with people thinking they are weird or different because that is ostracizing,” Elam said.
The class focuses on physical issues like coordination and sensory and spatial issues, and integrates social skills, like interacting with others, turn taking and handling changes in structure. The class is more about improvisation and creativity than technique. Elam is purposefully trying to keep it less rigid because autistic children often think literally and like rigidity and structure, and don’t know how to react when something messes up the routine, Elam said. Currently, five children ages four to nine are participating, and Elam will accept a few more students.
“It is learning how to do imaginative and creative play because they need to be able to do those things if they are going to be friends with other kids and not be the weird kid on the playground.”
Elam saw a need for the class when she realized that similar programs exist but only in the more affluent communities in southern Westchester County. “There is nothing up here,” she said.
The professional dancer has worked with students through ArtsWestchester, BOCES and the Dance Theater of Harlem and local schools. She is currently working on getting an Independent Masters from the SUNY Empire School, which includes studying autistic children.
So her class, Moving Voices, is an opportunity to learn more about children on the spectrum for her Masters while providing the kids a fun way to learn how to effectively interact and socialize.
The class is free and offered in a 10-week session on Saturdays from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Energy Movement Center, which is donating its space. The program started two weeks ago but Elam welcomes additional students. For more information contact Andrea Elam at email@example.com or 914-393-5751.