“The tiny plant from the tiny seed grows on and on. It doesn’t stop. It grows taller and taller. And now a flower grows on it. People come from far and near to look at this flower. It is the tallest flower they have ever seen”–Eric Carle, The Tiny Seed
In the fall of 2010, 8 kids with autism took part in a specialized class created by an autism parent and Jennifer LaFlamme, owner of Dance Progressions in Worcester, Massachusetts. Of these 8 kids, one, Shawn Hebert, stood out at the beginning but it wasn’t just because he was the only boy. “Shawn is a cautionary observer,” his great-aunt and guardian Nancy Merrill notes. “He’s not one to be pushed too quickly into action.”
Indeed, while the other kids danced, laughed, played, and generally seemed to have a great time, Shawn struggled mightily, crying and hiding in the corner. It was obvious the presence of so many strange people within a confined space bothered him greatly but he hung in there. Equally important, Nancy, who has been through it all and then some with her great-nephew, did too. “I knew we were on to something. Shawn bonded very quickly with Miss Jen,” she remembers.
Slowly but surely, Shawn’s willingness to participate increased as the class proceeded. He was performing some of the moves and greatly enjoying the games designed to encourage self-expression, such as pretending to be an animal. His magnetism began to shine too. “Shawn has a smile that would brighten anyone’s day,” Tracie Brown, an instructor at Dance Progressions and one of Shawn’s original teachers states.
The initial autism-driven class proved a success, with two of the students achieving the Holy Grail, so to speak, of taking part in the studio’s annual recital on stage along with typically developing peers in front of hundreds of people. Shawn wasn’t one of these two students but he stuck with Dance Progressions, returning for subsequent sessions until Miss Jen took a maternity leave.
The specialized class fizzled out but not his bond with Miss Jen, who had a knack for working with him. She offered to lend her vast expertise in a 1:1 setting at a very modest cost to teach Shawn. When she returned from having her baby, so did he, continuing to increase his physical skills, attention to task, and communication skills. The physical movements combined with following verbal and visual directions served as a brain gym for Shawn. His vast improvement was most apparent to the person who’d know best: his great-aunt. “I was in awe,” Nancy recalls.
Things were going great in their sessions until Miss Jen again became pregnant, the visual of which threw Shawn off. He’d poke at her belly before retreating and no longer had the same enthusiasm for dance. It was a setback but Shawn, Miss Jen, and Nancy all persevered. He stopped taking lessons when Miss Jen took her second maternity leave but he was far from finished.
When Miss Jen returned last fall, Shawn did too–with a new person in the mix: Dance Progressions Competition Team Member Mariah Bryant. “Mariah was introduced slowly,” Nancy explains. “He got a kick out of having two ladies by his side and took to Mariah in short order.” Soon, two ladies became one, and Shawn had a dance partner. “The eventual separation from two partners to one was a well planned transition by Miss Jen,” Nancy notes.
The feeling is mutual. “Shawn is my BFFL,” states Mariah, a high school student studying Early Childhood Education. Miss Jen agrees. “Mariah and Shawn are a great mix.” The BFFLs warm up together, practice steps, and then perform a routine to a song appropriately titled Give A Little Love. Shawn, who is almost entirely non-verbal, makes his affinity for his dance partner quite clear with frequent smiles and hugs. “Shawn loves dancing with Mariah,” says Nancy.
Shawn’s weekly dance lesson with Miss Jen and Mariah has started to carry over to other settings. “At home, Shawn started moving about practicing steps such as the chasse side-to-side, skipping, and recently, the toe-heel-tap,” Nancy marvels. “I didn’t know what or who he was imitating until I saw him practice the same steps with Miss Jen. It’s the funniest thing to see him break into dance steps without music. I think he’s imagining the music as she does it.”
It’s a good thing Shawn is practicing his dance skills because, on Friday, June 13th and Saturday, June 14th, he will take part in the Dance Progressions 2014 Recital with partner Mariah by his side. Nancy is thrilled. “I have been on cloud nine since Miss Jen recommended Shawn participate in the recital,” she gushes. “I cannot wait to see him on stage. I am so proud and happy for him!” It’s safe to Nancy is not alone in this sentiment.
To learn more about Dance Progressions, please visit their website at http://danceprogressionsma.com/. Tickets for their always spectacular recital–with a performance by Shawn and Mariah–will soon be available to the public. Please visit my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diamondisthesky.com and like to keep up with the latest happenings of this blog and my non-profit under the same name.