Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MSc)


Kinesiology and Physical Education


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Dr. Pam Bryden

Advisor Role


Second Advisor

Dr. Paula Fletcher

Advisor Role



Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the most commonly diagnosed neurological disorder in children today, affecting an estimated 1 in 150 to 1 in 160 children in Canada (Health Canada, 2013). Children with ASD have reduced communication skills as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests (APA, 2014). Unfortunately there are few recreational activities available for the autistic population. Past research has shown dance/movement therapy to be beneficial for children on the spectrum, but there is a dearth of literature regarding recreational dance. Dance is a form of physical activity that fosters skill development, provides social opportunities, and can be made accessible for all people. The purpose of this research was to explore the experiences of children with ASD as they participated in recreational dance. This study had two parts, a qualitative component to capture the lived experiences of children with ASD through the perspective of their caregivers, dance instructors, and volunteers; and a quantitative component to measure physical skill development in children with ASD over time.

The participants were as follows: four children with ASD (two sisters), three caregivers, three dance instructors, and three dance volunteers. One child, caregiver, instructor and volunteer were recruited from Studio 2, and the rest were recruited from studio 1. Caregivers, instructors, and volunteers completed a background questionnaire and one-on-one semi-structured interview. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, supplemented with the researcher’s field notes, and then sent back to the participants in the form of a member check. Two salient themes emerged upon analysis of the qualitative data, which were creating dance programs for all abilities and what it means to be a dancer. All participants felt that these two programs were beneficial, not only for the children with ASD, but also the caregivers, instructors, and volunteers.

Each participant with ASD completed a battery of motor tests (for balance, endurance, locomotion, flexibility, and body awareness) at four points in time over a five month period. While the participants discussed many benefits in the qualitative component, there were few trends towards improvement in the quantitative component. This is most likely because the motor tests were designed for the neurotypical population and did not account for the high level of variability in ASD. Due to the variability of ASD symptoms in the children of this study, the quantitative results were analysed per case.

This research project has shown that participants benefitted from participating in a recreational dance program based on the perspectives of their caregivers, instructors, and volunteers. Future research should work towards finding sound testing measures for children with ASD. Additionally, further research regarding children and adolescents with ASD and other disabilities is warranted.


List of Edits

As recommended by the Thesis Advisory Committee at the final defense

  1. Clarify whether or not you suspended the deficit model of ASD in your practice of Epoché.
    1. Additionally, the researcher acted as a tool by collecting field notes and practicing epoché, in which “the researcher looks inside to become aware of personal bias, to eliminate personal involvement with subject material, that is, eliminate or at least gain clarity about, preconceptions” (Patton, 2002, p. 485). The researcher suspended biases about dance programs, but not necessarily about deficits associated with ASD, which may have influenced the data collection. Epoché was accomplished by recording personal thoughts and opinions about the data in a research journal. (p. 25)
    2. Explain how the experience became meaningful and describe the emotional interpretations of the individuals with ASD in more detail.
      1. The purpose of attending the dance class was to witness the relationships between the dancers and instructors, record the organization of the class, study the teaching methods that the instructors utilize and determine whether the dancers progress over time. In addition, the researcher observed the emotional responses of the participants with ASD as an indicator of their enjoyment of a particular activity. For example, a child who smiles and jumps with his or her volunteer helper at the start of an activity was believed to be excited about said activity. On the other hand, a child who left the group to pace in front of the mirror was believed to be inattentive to the activity. As a dancer and instructor, the researcher has extensive experience in observing and analysing dance with neurotypical children. It is important to note however, that children with ASD express their feelings differently than neurotypical children, and therefore the researchers observations are only an interpretation of the children’s true feelings. (p. 23)
      2. Increase your description of qualitative data analysis and coding.
        1. The researcher kept a journal and recorded each step of the research process. The journal allowed for early analysis, as the researcher recorded preliminary thoughts and queries about the data. First, the researcher created participant profiles from the background questionnaires in order to better understand the transcripts during analysis. After data from each participant was compiled, the researcher read the transcript two to three times for content and reoccurring topics. These topics were recorded in the research journal for each transcript and then compiled together after all transcripts were read. The researcher utilized NVivo to categorize the data into the topics that were found in the preliminary analysis. These topics were used as nodes in the NVivo program. The researcher read the transcripts and organized participant quotes into the nodes with which they corresponded. This process was repeated with each transcript to ensure that all pertinent data was placed under the appropriate node. Once the data was organized, the researcher read the quotes within a node and either organized the data into sub categories or moved quotes out of the node if they did not fit with the patterns within the node. Nodes with few quotes were merged with nodes that were richer with data. For example, a node with only two or three quotes from less than half of the participants was not rich enough to stand alone as a topic and was therefore added as a subtopic to a related node. During this organization process, the researcher referenced to the original transcripts to ensure the quotes were not removed from the context in which they were discussed in the interview. Lastly, the researcher summarised the nodes into their general meaning and placed them into categories. The overarching categories were made into themes and the associated subcategories were made into subthemes. (p. 26-27)
        2. Provide detail about volunteer involvement in the classes.
          1. The volunteers attended each dance class and met with their dancer before class began. Each volunteer had a different roll depending on the needs of the child they worked with, and they discussed these needs with the caregivers and dance instructors within the first weeks of the program. Some volunteers provided social support by keeping the dancer engaged in the class, while others provided physical support to help THE dancerS move their bodIES (i.e., a child with Cerebral Palsy who has difficulty moving his or her legs). The goal for all volunteers was to ensure that the dancers had a positive experience in the class. (p. 20)
          2. Link researcher observations with the qualitative results.
            1. The researcher also observed signs of unease during transitions (such as standing close to the mirror and touching his eyelashes) and he relied on his volunteer, Cara, to help him at these times. Cara often stood in front of him holding both of his hands and jumped up and down. Colin responded by smiling and jumping with her until it was time for the next activity. (p. 45)
            2. The researcher noticed that Sadie did in fact move around the room during her dance class, but often required direction from Ashley and her volunteer Stephanie to participate in the activity at hand. (p. 46)
            3. Kayla supported this in her own interview, when she expressed her enjoyment in learning new dance steps, especially in the tap class. (p. 46)
            4. Secondly, Hannah demonstrated physical aggression at dance class by hitting another dancer. The researcher was present during this incident and noticed that the atmosphere changed to become more negative after this occurred. Unfortunately, the other dancer was upset and began to cry. (p. 46)
            5. Some dancers required more help from the volunteers than others. Sadie for example, functioned best in the class when she had two volunteers, as described by her mother Briana. Throughout the class, the volunteers would each take one of Sadie’s arms to help direct her to a new activity, or one would stand behind her for physical support while the other stood in front to visually demonstrate the activity. (p. 48)
            6. . The researcher attended classes weekly at studio 2 and felt personal connections with the dancers. For example, Hannah often looked for the researcher when she entered the classroom and chose to sit beside her before class began. (p. 49)
            7. All participants agreed that dance incorporates music, movement, and self-expression, and that learning dance steps and creating movement was beneficial for children with special needs. The researcher noticed that each of the four children seemed happy while in the dance class, as they were often smiling and participating in the dance activities. (p. 50)
            8. Hannah often sang along with songs that she was familiar with and moved to the beat of the song, which seemed to help her focus on the activity Tricia was leading. (p. 51)
            9. While Sadie did not always participate in the same activity as the rest of her class, the researcher noticed that she was often moving around the room. This physical activity of walking, running, and skipping around may have contributed to her motor skills as well. (p. 53)
            10. The researcher also saw Hannah become more creative with her body as she observed the class. Furthermore, Tricia believed that she gained other physical skills including balance, as a result of being active and regularly practicing a variety of moves. (p. 54)
            11. During Kayla’s interview, she showed the researcher her recital photograph from her previous year of dance and seemed to be very proud of her role in the performance, which was another indicator of her enhanced self-confidence. (p. 56)
            12. Grace believed that Hannah felt comfortable with the other dancers in her class, which may have fostered feelings of belonging within the dance environment. She was also comfortable with the researcher and showed excitement to see her from week to week. (p. 56)
            13. In addition to building a relationship with his volunteer, he also built a relationship with the researcher and gave her a hug before starting the third session of motor testing. (p. 59)
            14. Rephrase the statement about recruiting a “representative” sample.
              1. The goal was to recruit participants from several different facilities that offered these classes in order to gain different perspectives from individuals who were involved. (p. 20)
              2. Alter the qualitative purpose to incorporate the lived experience through other’s perspectives, as you had limited data from the perspective of the children with ASD.
                1. capture the lived experiences of children with ASD through the perspective of their caregivers, dance instructors, and volunteers (p. 3)
                2. lived experiences of individuals with ASD who participate in recreational dance classes through the perspectives of their primary caregivers, and the perspectives of their dance instructors (p. 19)
                3. In this case, the phenomenon was the recreational dance program and the experience was lived by the child with ASD. Unfortunately, not all children with ASD were able to be interviewed. Therefore, data about the social aspects of participating in a dance class was collected from the primary caregivers, dance instructors, and assistants as well as the researcher’s observations of the dance classes. (p. 26)
                4. Two salient themes emerged upon analysis of the data regarding the lived experience of children with ASD as they participated in a recreational dance class from the perspectives of their caregivers, dance instructors, and volunteers. (p. 41)
                5. Because three of the four individuals with ASD were non-verbal, their lived experienced were explored through the perspectives of their caregivers, instructors, volunteers, and the researcher’s observations. (p. 83)
                6. Add an example about how the background questionnaire was used in the interview.
                  1. Data from the questionnaire was used to probe the participants to discuss their experiences in depth during the one-on-one interview with the researcher. For example, caregivers were asked to provide information about the recreational programs in which their children with ASD participated. The researcher then used this information to probe the caregivers in their interviews (i.e., how often does your child attend these programs? Why did you enrol your child in these programs?). The questionnaires were also used to create individual participant profiles (see tables 1 to 3). (p. 22)
                  2. Move the section about triangulation under the section about credibility.
                    1. According to Patton (2002), three elements determine a study’s credibility: (1) rigorous methods; (2) credibility of the researcher; and (3) philosophical belief in the value of qualitative inquiry. Utilizing triangulation improved the strength of data collection and the credibility of data analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Patton, 2002). In this study, three forms of triangulation were utilized to ensure data credibility. The first was data triangulation, in which the researcher compared data from several different sources (i.e., children with ASD, their primary caregivers, their dance instructors and the researcher herself) (Lincoln & Guba, 2985). The second form… (p. 24)
                    2. Be clear about the social impact of the dance class, as it was the purpose of the qualitative research component.
                      1. While the purpose of the qualitative research was to explore the social aspects of the class, only a small portion of the data pertained to socializing at dance (see subtheme more than meets the eye). (p. 41)
                      2. Scale back on the results in the discussion and provide broader literature about the findings.
                        1. Condensed and removed some information about the results
                        2. Specifically, it would be beneficial to capture the perspectives of non-verbal children with ASD to uncover unique themes for this group. Qualitative data collection methods that utilize stories, crafts, photographs, and concrete interview questions may be more effective for individuals with ASD than traditional interviews (see Beresford, Tozer, Rabiee, & Sloper, 2004; Preece & Jordan, 2009). (p. 91)
                        3. In conclusion, this pilot research project has shown that participants benefitted from participating in a recreational dance program based on the perspectives of their caregivers, instructors, and volunteers. Most importantly, the four children with ASD all enjoyed attending dance class, so much so that they have all been dancing for over a year. Without accessible dance classes, many children with special needs would not have the opportunity to dance. Some benefits of these programs have been uncovered from this pilot test, however, future research is necessary to enhance existing programs and provide structure for instructors looking to create new programs. In addition, future research should work towards finding sound testing measures for children with ASD. Additionally, further research regarding children and adolescents with ASD and other disabilities is warranted. (p. 94)
                        4. Provide more detail about the upper body awareness test.
                          1. The arm positions were as follows: 1) both arms straight up overhead, 2) both arms straight out to the sides, 3) left arm straight up with right arm straight out, 4) and right arm straight up with left arm straight out. The children were then asked to place their arms at their sides and replace their arms in the same position that the researcher originally placed them. Degrees of error between the researcher’s arm placement and the participant’s replacement was the outcome measure. (p. 35)
                          2. Alter the tables to scatter plots with a line of best fit, add numeric values in qualitative results section.
                            1. She walked the greatest distance (485’) in session three and walked the least distance (400’) in session four. (p. 66)
                            2. Kayla’s walking speed ranged from 1.19m/s in session four to 1.57m/s in session three. (p. 66)
                            3. Kayla was 3cm away from reaching her toes in session two and reached 2.5cm past her toes in session one (see Figure 3). (p. 66)
                            4. d. She improved from 50 degrees of error in the first session to 25 degrees of error in the fourth session. (p. 67)
                            5. e. If they did not remind her, she would stop walking and not complete the task. There was an increasing trend in sessions two (325’), three (350’), and four (425’) showing that Sadie was able to walk a further distance over time with each session. (p. 68)
                            6. she required less time to walk 4 meters in sessions three (1.59m/s) and four (1.82m/s) than she did in sessions one (0.96m/s) and two (0.75m/s, see Figure 2). (p. 68)
                            7. Her degree of error ranged from 10 degrees in session two to 130 degrees in session four. (p. 69)
                            8. Colin walked the furthest distance in session two (415’) and the least distance in session four (288’, see Figure 1).(p. 70)
                            9. Colin walked on the metal tape measure in a heel to toe step, which may have slowed him down (0.93m/s). According to his mother, Colin likes to hear the sound of metal and therefore the tape measure was placed off to the side for subsequent tests. In sessions two and three, Colin jogged the four meters rather than walking, which may have increased his gait speed (1.50m/s and 1.60m/s respectively). Colin shuffled his feet on the floor during the fourth session which likely slowed his speed (1.48m/s). (p. 71)
                            10. Otherwise, Colin was able to imitate the arm positions fairly accurately for the other sessions (ranged from 50 degrees in session one to 110 degrees in session four). (p. 71)
                            11. This can be seen in Figure 2, as Hannah was relatively consistent in sessions one, two, and three (304’, 375’, and 340’) and then walked a shorter distance in session four (300’). (p. 72)
                            12. Hannah required less time to travel four meters in sessions one (1.28m/s) to three (1.56m/s) and the most time in session four (1.05m/s, see Figure 2). (p. 73)
                            13. . Hannah became less flexible as time went on, as she was able to reach 5cm and 2.5cm past her toes in sessions one and two respectively, but reached to 0cm in sessions three and four (p. 73)
                            14. She had the most error in session one (145 degrees) and the lease in session three (90 degrees). (p. 73)
                            15. Updated figures p 75 to 81 (see next page)

Figure 1: Distance travelled in feet during the two minutes of walking.

Figure 2: Time required in seconds to walk four meters.

Figure 3: Distance in centimeters reached towards the toes. Note: Negative numbers represent distance between the fingers and toes, positive numbers represent distance reached past the toes.

Figure 4: Degree of error in arm replacement for the upper body imitation test.

Figure 5: Root mean square of Kayla’s standing balance in the medial lateral plane.

Figure 6: Root mean square of Kayla’s standing balance in the anterior posterior plane.

Figure 7: Root mean square of Sadie’s standing balance in the medial lateral plane.

Figure 8: Root mean square of Sadie’s standing balance in the anterior posterior plane.

Figure 9: Root mean square of Colin’s standing balance in the medial lateral plane.

Figure 10: Root mean square of Colin’s standing balance in the anterior posterior plane.

Figure 11: Root mean square of Hannah’s standing balance in the medial lateral plane.

Figure 12: Root mean square of Hannah’s standing balance in the anterior posterior plane.

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