THE HEALING POWER OF POLE
BY COLLETTE KAKUK
PHOTOS COUTESTY OF DAVID MOYLE
Sydney is amazing to watch on the spinning pole. Dressed in a loose t-shirt and shorts, she casually approaches the pole in her mother’s kitchen and begins a fast rotational routine with just one swift sweep of her leg. As she lifts her body onto the pole, the wind races wildly through her strawberry colored tresses. She tosses her head back, holds on with both hands and wraps one leg around the whirling post of steel. Her face reflects unusual calm ~ she is expressionless and seems disconnected from everything around her.
Sydney is 12 years old and has autism.
Healing autism with pole
What is Vestibular Input? How does it soothe symptoms of Autism? COLLETTE KAKUK explores this fascinating story.
Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life and interferes with the brain’s development of social and communication skills. It now affects nearly 1 in 100 children in the United States. The exact cause of autism is not known. There are a number of possible theories, but none have been proven. It is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental toxins. Though symptoms vary tremendously among children with autism, most children will fail to thrive socially. Symptoms include lack of eye contact, aversion to cuddling or failure to respond to their name. They will begin talking later than the average child, repeat words over and over, be unable to start or maintain a conversation, and be overly ritualistic. They will also move about and fidget constantly, and have a strong need for repetitive rocking or spinning movements. Why does Sydney need to spin? Because autistic children (and children with Sensory Processing Disorder) are sensory seeking, and spinning on the pole provides the movement they want, need and crave. They are seeking vestibular input. Vestibular means having to do with the body’s system for maintaining equilibrium.
The right combination of vestibular input (i.e. spinning) will keep an autistic child’s sensory system more organized, calm and focused. Scientifically, it is believed that the rhythm and pattern of spinning stimulates the development of the cerebellum and basal ganglia (the parts of the brain connected to the brain stem) and rebuilds connectivity to the frontal lobes that are responsible for speech, motor functions and control of emotion thereby promoting behavior and learning. An autistic child spins to regain focus and neurological organization. This contributes to an overall sense of calmness.
Sydney’s mother, Natalie Hamilton, understands the connection between spinning, pole dancing, autism and therapy quite well. In addition to discovering that the pole offers significant therapeutic benefits for her daughter, Natalie is a partner and master pole dance instructor at OC Pole Fitness in Orange County, CA and has experienced similar benefits from the pole but in a different context. As Natalie explains, “Through vestibular input, the pole offers therapeutic benefits so that Sydney may regroup and regain the ability to focus on homework and adapt to family life. I have always known that the pole offers more than just physical fitness benefits, but as I watch the calming effect the pole has on my daughter, I realize that my students and I experience very similar “regrouping” benefits. Pole is an outlet for us – a way in which we can fill our cups through socializing, being creative, and being challenged. We go back home rejuvenated and able to focus this new energy on meeting family needs and everything else that life requires. Pole dancing allows me to immerse deeply into something that is focused on me, which then in turn allows me to focus on others. And, it is an amazing way to keep in touch with my sensuality – an element that falls to the wayside for many mothers of children with disabilities.”
Natalie says Sydney also recognizes the physical challenge of pole as well. She will test herself to see if she can lift herself higher or climb faster. Natalie suspects one day Sydney will seek the sensory input dancers get from inverting.
While the spinning pole may not be a good remedy for every autistic child (because symptoms vary so greatly among those affected, and what works in one case may not work in another), Natalie is hopeful about what she has experienced with her daughter. When Sydney was small, experts recommended the popular child toy “Sit and Spin” to satiate Sydney’s appetite and need to spin – but having long outgrown a Sit and Spin, the pole now offers an effective tool that can grow with Sydney into adulthood.
And, because poles are quite portable and compact, pole dancing is an effective therapeutic activity Sydney can always have nearby – just like her mom.
Other women in the pole community agree:
Diana M. of California, Special Education Teacher for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: “I have heard and seen the ‘sit n spin’ toy being used and it [is very similar to the pole and] seems to work. I am a fan. For me, pole classes are my escape to relax and be me. I can get overwhelmed with the amount of work this profession can bring. I have mad passion for pole and I love it. I really do.”
Carter L. of Virginia, Special Education Teacher of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: “As a teacher of children with autism, I think this is an incredible perspective that hasn’t been explored. I know I have tried adaptive seating for students with special needs. This includes air cushions, beanbags, yoga balls, and simple alternative positioning. We do this in order to provide sensory input to help these students improve attention to tasks or even just as a soothing mechanism.”
..Spinning on the pole provides the movement they want, need and crave. They are seeking vestibular input
Nikki O. of Michigan, Parent of Daughter with Shadow Autism: “Katelyn is 10 [and] was diagnosed with a condition called Basilar Migraine about 3 years ago. The seizures caused some fairly signifi- cant damage when they became severe, impacting motor skills and the ability to process information. The doctors concluded that she has “shadow autism”. She gets very anxious and internalizes a lot, so I found that the pole gives her a place to de-stress, re-regulate and gain control of her motor skills, which have suffered from the sei- zures. I find that she is much calmer and exhibits pride when she ac- complishes certain things she thought she couldn’t. She struggles in so many other areas; it is good she has this one where she has real accomplishments.
I use [the pole] the same way, and since I have two poles in my basement studio (3rd coming soon) we enjoy poling together. She picks the music and sometimes choreographs what we will do. It gives us a place to meet and connect. Kate’s doctor said that as long as she finds success in pole, it is a great thing. I am thankful every day that I have found pole as a way to keep her fit and healthy and just to have fun. “
Ange G. of California, Adult Woman With Aspergers (an Autism Spectrum Disorder): “As a grown-up with Asperger’s Syndrome, I use the pole to help create a meditative state. Re-regulate, if you will. Let me explain: It took me a long time to learn how to meditate using breathing methods. If my sensory issues were triggered, I be- came hypersensitive to noises, the touch of my clothing against my skin, and especially light. So it was difficult to consistently cre- ate that sense of separation from the world and intense quiet buf- fer I need to handle the world in general. Sometimes, just walking around the pole will help me spiral into that quiet zone where I can shift the onslaught of stressors back out into the world. You’ll no- tice if you take a class with me, I pirouette a lot. I like the feeling of the controlled spin and using the pole as my partner. Surprisingly, this allows me to connect with other people in the class and more importantly, outside the class. Pole has been a wonderful therapy for me.”
As autism and related disorders become more prevalent in our society, we are learning more and more about how to accommo- date those that are affected and help them to thrive in their lives.
Sometimes solutions come in surprising places. The reach that the art and sport of pole dance fitness has on people’s lives continues to surprise and inspire. Worried your child may have Autism?
Check out this link: www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly