Ballet Could Be a Home for Autistic Dancers Like Me

February 28, 2022

“Watch your thumbs,” the ballet teacher said, and I looked toward my left thumb, held in second position. After a few seconds I realized what she actually meant was to tuck my thumb into my palm. I tend to take things literally.

I was diagnosed with autism a few months ago, at age 25, but I’ve been autistic my whole life. In many ways ballet class has been a safe place for me, even before I knew why I craved routine, envi­ronments with explicit rules, and social situations that don’t necessitate talking.

Ballet class’ standardized structure offered me stability as I learned the art form, starting at age 12. Autistic brains don’t automatically filter out unimportant information, rendering routine critical. Parts of my day need to be familiar if I’m taking in every sound outside my window, every leaf on the sidewalk, the way my curls feel different on my head each morning. Because the order of ballet class is consistent, I’m better able to process new information, including combinations and corrections.

Parts of class even helped my social development. Most social settings come with a high number of implied rules that can feel elusive and ever-changing to autistic people. During adolescence, I’d intuit that I’d broken a social rule but be unsure of what my mistake was. In ballet, the rules were stated directly. Once, some girls were standing in front of my teacher while she taught a combination, and she told them, “The student stands behind the teacher when they’re teaching.” Her specificity was clarifying. These explicit ballet-etiquette lessons set me up for greater success in the studio.

Because class resembles parallel play—a stage of social development when children prefer to play independently beside each other rather than interactively—it also provided me with fulfillment that I struggled to find in unstructured environments, like hanging out with friends. Autistic people can find parallel play rewarding into adulthood, unlike many of their allistic (non-autistic) peers. During the pandemic, my roommate took virtual ballet classes and, with little else to do, I started taking them beside her. I realized­ ballet is a way to feel close without language—to feel part of a community without having to navigate complex social interactions.

“I realized ballet is a way to feel close without language—to feel part of a community without having to navigate complex social interactions.”

Emily DeMaioNewton

Along with the ways ballet has enriched my life, however, there are plenty of elements of studio culture that alienate autistic dancers. Before my diagnosis, I internalized shame about how my brain and body work, because many assumptions made during ballet class didn’t apply to me—that people swing their arms in opposition to their legs while walking, for example, which I don’t. Growing up, one of my studios banned skirts because students would fidget with them. Autistic people (and other groups, like people with ADHD) need to “stim” to regulate themselves physically and emotionally. “Stim” is short for “self-stimulatory behavior” and can include things like rocking, hand flapping and other repetitive motions. While correcting extraneous movement during dancing is justifiable, criticizing a student for fiddling with their skirt while waiting to go across the floor is unnecessary. When I let myself stim during ballet class, I learn combinations more quickly and can better regulate my emotions. While some teachers may argue this doesn’t prepare dancers for the professional world, I believe that the professional world should make reasonable changes to become more inclusive.

Ballet also comes with a host of sensory stimuli—unique fabrics, hairspray-filled dressing rooms, loud music—that can be a nightmare for autistic dancers. Sensory issues, which are unique to each individual’s nervous system, can register as physical pain and aren’t merely dislike. For example, my childhood studio’s dress code required a specific make of leotard, and the sensation of the sleeves on my skin sometimes triggered sensory overload. When a dancer complains about uniforms, costumes or music, I encourage teachers to investigate the reason. Whether it is a sensory issue, a body-image issue or something else, a nonjudgmental and open conversation will get closer to the heart of the problem.

Unaddressed sensory processing difficulties can even have dangerous effects in the long term. For most of my life, I’ve had hip discomfort while dancing that I thought was just related to muscle engagement. However, I recently learned the sensation is a chronic injury. Autistic people struggle with interoception: the perception of sensations inside one’s body. It’s hard for me to differentiate between soreness, pain and engagement. I’ve started seeing a physical therapist who helps me identify the differences, but talking about pain identification is a conversation teachers should have with all of their students.

Changes like these will include not only dancers who have requested accommodations but also those who may not know their disabilities or have the language to ask for what they need. Autistic women and people of color are much less likely to be formally diagnosed with autism as children, or ever, because of gender and racial disparities in research and bias in the diagnostic process. Each individual’s needs are unique, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all accommodation. But the first step to making sure everybody feels safe and included in a classroom is to value dancers’ autonomy. Allow input from students when solving problems; ask before touching a student and respect their answer; when a dancer expresses a need, consider creative solutions to meet it.

It would have helped me to have conversations about why certain rules existed. Discussing the reasoning for uniforms might have given me permission to approach a teacher and explain why it was difficult for me to wear the class leotard. But in my experience, the only talk of uniforms was dancers being reprimanded for not wearing them, which made me afraid to ever mention my discomfort. As Keith Lee, director of diversity and inclusion at Charlottesville Ballet, put it in a conversation with me: “Don’t discourage the artist. Take notice and act on their discovery. Their honesty, approach and involvement is their contribution to the art.”

After seriously considering a career in dance as a senior in high school, I decided not to pursue one because of the parts of dance institutions that ostracized me. I feel unwelcome in the art form when I see companies and studios perform for autistic audiences while failing to accommodate autistic dancers in their classrooms. Still, I continue to love ballet, and I regularly take classes from teachers who are patient, respectful of my needs and nonjudgmental of my differences. I hope that all autistic dancers can find teachers who celebrate them and that, as time goes on, more of us find safe and welcoming places in the field.