Circus opens up new world for children with autism

Joining the circus has opened up a whole new world for children on the autism spectrum.

An autistic teenager teeters happily on a unicycle, others practise the ancient art of slapstick while another dangles upside down from a long stream of bright-red ribbon - the wild and unconventional ways of the circus are helping to unlock some of the challenges of autism.

There's a sense of acceptance and belonging at Circus Monoxide as the group of students from the Wollemi unit at Dapto High School spin and tumble, jump and juggle their way through their weekly sports lesson.

In this safe space they will learn that it's OK to fail and try again - like the namesake of their unit, the Wollemi pine, persistence pays off in the circus game.

"We believe there's a place for every child in the circus, no matter what their disability."

Mastering even one trick takes determination and practice - be it flying through the air on a trapeze or spinning a plate on a stick with two feet firmly planted safely on mats.

Riley Joiner, 14, is no high flyer so he's giving the trapeze a wide berth. There's also no chance of him morphing into a clown.

"Heck no," says Riley, leaning in closer as if to share a secret.

Murray McLean and Riley Joiner (on mat) like to jump and tumble at Circus Monoxide. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Murray McLean and Riley Joiner (on mat) like to jump and tumble at Circus Monoxide. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Joshua takes part in circus day.

Joshua takes part in circus day.

"The funny thing about clowns is that they are not very funny. They don't tell you good jokes. To tell you something else, my dad is scared of them. I think he gets a bit creeped out by them."

Riley admits he too finds clowns "a little creepy" although perhaps not as much as his dad. He is though a bit in awe of performers who can breathe fire out of their mouths "like dragons" - although he would never want to try that trick.

"Heck no," he says. "I'd burn my mouth. It's pretty crazy. They would never teach us that."

He may be a straight talker when it comes to clowns and fire breathers but 18 months ago Riley wanted nothing to do with the circus.

So resistant was he that he'd spend each lesson sitting in the corner, a stormy look on his face, arms and legs firmly crossed as he watched his classmates have all the fun.

Riley's mum Nikki Joiner says circus was so far from his comfort zone that it took months for him to warm to the idea.

"Riley was really apprehensive at first," she says.

"He even became a bit disruptive in the group. But we kept chiselling away reminding him of the benefits and now he absolutely loves circus days."

Riley's now adept at the hula hoop, can spin a plate on a pointy stick and can jump tricks on the mini tramp.

"The thing I like about circus is that you get to learn some tricks you've never done before," he says. "At the moment I'm learning how to juggle rings. I've seen one boy jump on the trampoline and do somersaults. I can't do that but I can lift up my legs and jump over obstacles. I'm really good at that stuff."

For those on the autism spectrum there can be issues with body awareness and sensory processing. Some struggle with social communication and interaction and display restricted or repetitive behaviours. New experiences can be a challenge as Riley discovered when he first ventured into the circus world.

Fiona McKay, a support teacher at Wollemi, was the instigator behind setting up a connection between the autism unit and Circus Monoxide in 2010.

Now 22 students, including three from the mainstream school, participate in the program once a week for sport.

"Our students often don't have the capability of participating in team sports, they don't fit into that box," explains McKay.

"With circus there's not a lot of dependence on having to remember the rules because they are working on individual skills and trying to improve their personal best. They are challenging themselves, not letting a team down."

McKay says circus tools provide autistic children with a different way of focusing.

"They need to work on physical balance," she says. "They need to organise their limbs the right way to be able to climb the tissue or hang from their hands. Even getting all four limbs to open up and work together to form a star can require a lot of effort."

Some of what they learn is put to good use in the classroom back at school.

"We may use circus, for example, to stress the importance of listening and following instructions," McKay says, "as well as encouraging students to push through something they find difficult."

This is Murray McLean's fourth year at Circus Monoxide. The 16-year-old is in year 11 at Wollemi and says his two main skills are the mini tramp and slapstick comedy.

"With the mini-tramp we run, jump and land in different poses. I enjoy that more than any other category," he says.

"I'm also good at slapstick, which we practise in a skit. It requires movement and humour, without humour it's not slapstick. We learn techniques like fake tripping and fake slapping."

One of the benefits of circus, he says, is getting to know his other classmates.

"I believe that circus has pretty much brought me closer to everyone at Wollemi," says Murray. "The other thing about circus is if something doesn't really go correct for you, instead of it being a downside, it doesn't really matter. You get back up, dust yourself off and bounce back until you get it right. Never give up - that's what I say."

Joiner says circus has improved Riley's hand/eye co-ordination and fitness level. He's also now much more willing to try different experiences.

"He's got more confidence," she says. "It's been really positive for all of us actually. He socialises more and relates and communicates better with the family. He'll show us his tricks. He's really come into himself."

Another benefit, she says, is the sense of belonging the circus experience gives the autistic teenagers, who often struggle to fit in with mainstream society.

"Riley loves that the circus staff are a bit different and alternative," Joiner says. "It suits him and he feels at home there. For him to be able to identify with a group is fantastic."

Kristy Seymour has written a master's research paper on the benefits of circus therapy for autistic children.

Based in Brisbane, she operates a program called Circus Stars that provides an environment in which every child can find their own talent or speciality.

"The circus environment is supportive and inclusive," she says. "We believe there's a place for every child in the circus, no matter what their disability."

She says using tools of circus training to unlock the body and mind can open up a whole new world to autistic children.

"Rules and codes are thrown out the window," explains Seymour. "We find the child's strength and we focus on that. They learn that they can achieve things that have not been achievable for them outside of the circus classroom."

A flow-on effect is that they trust themselves as they learn to take risks.

"For children with autism circus can provide an opportunity to have the kind of childhood that they haven't yet experienced. One that holds risks and adventure. They gain strength, core stability, co-ordination and physical awareness, but they can also gain confidence and creative expression."

She says circus is a culture where being different is not only embraced but celebrated.

"Children with autism are readily encouraged to become part of the the circus family," she says.

"One of my students had a lot of anger and frustration. He had low self esteem and was self-harming because he was bullied at school. He didn't belong anywhere. Now circus has become where he fits in. After a year he's become my star pupil."

The Circus Monoxide program is funded by Arts NSW and Dapto Rotary. For the first time this year students are planning a performance with a prison theme.

"For many of our students it will be their first opportunity to be in a show with costumes and acts," says McKay.

"It requires a lot of team work, patience and flexibility. It goes beyond the physical, which is something really good for these guys. They have to learn to have pride in their skills and to be able to control their emotions and manage themselves in a safe environment."

Seymour says a showcase of talent can help to break down barriers.

"When autistic children participate in a circus performance it gives them an opportunity to break out of the labels that have been placed upon them all their lives," she says. "They can be seen by their schoolmates and the wider community in more positive ways."

The students will perform at Circus Monoxide on September 19 at 5pm.

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