24 May 2021
To mark the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, we thought we would publish our interview with our International Representative for Africa and the Middle East Delia Sainsbury, and Joshua Fowler, a student of hers with Asperger’s syndrome (ASD) who she has taught for six years.
Joshua has recently passed a number of exams, teaching Delia lessons in resilience and determination. Read on to discover more on Joshua and Delia’s shared journey to success.
Delia has been teaching you and helping you prepare for your teaching exam for six years. How has that experience been for you?
Although it was a journey that had its ups and downs, it has been one of the most life-changing experiences of my life. In the beginning, I thought it was going to be a fairy tale where I could get along with everyone and I could master anything easily. Instead, I had to work harder than most in the dance studio and struggle to build relationships with my fellow students.
I had to face the fact that I was never going to be a natural dancer but rather a dancer that evolved through perspiration instead of just inspiration. I had a hard time mentally until I realised that it was just a matter of accepting myself and my own journey, and not comparing it to anybody else's. I felt like I wanted to quit sometimes as there were lots of bumps in the road. I persevered and eventually reached the finish line. It was all worth it and an experience I will never forget.
Has your working relationship with Delia been beneficial for your well-being?
I honestly feel like my relationship with Delia was difficult sometimes, especially at the beginning. Dealing with someone with Asperger’s syndrome is extremely challenging; I do not read social cues well. Miss Sainsbury persevered and before long, we found our groove.
She pushed me in the same way as she would any other student, which sometimes felt unfair, but now that I have qualified, I see her wisdom. She recommended that I delay my final exams and I spent two additional years at the college. It was hard to accept some of her methods and decisions until I realised that cared about me and wanted to protect me from disappointment and failure. The delay worked and I passed my exams with top marks.
My whole life, I have been asking myself if I was good enough for the dance industry I dreamt about being part of. Miss Sainsbury answered that for me the minute she first met me. She welcomed me into her school without hesitation. I wouldn’t be the dancer I am today without her, or the other teachers at the college. Delia didn’t just help me grow as a performer but also as a person. I couldn’t be more grateful.
How would you feel teaching others with autism and how would you teach them differently?
I am excited to teach anyone, whether they have autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, bipolar, or any other needs. I would love to teach anyone, of any age, mind, or anyone who is willing to pursue this field. Everybody has the right to learn how to dance, no matter what background they come from. I would even teach neurotypical people as well. I would welcome anyone with open arms.
I would approach my students like individuals and make sure they felt included and did not feel left out or confused, ensuring communication is clear and precise. I wouldn’t treat them like everybody else, but rather the way they would want to be treated. Most importantly, I would want to remind them of why they were earning dance and why they love it.
How does dance affect your physical and mental well-being?
I feel like I would have been an anti-social robot if it weren't for dancing and music. It has been the only fantasy I have that I know I can turn into a reality. It has been my comfort zone, my escape. Whenever I hear a song I like, I could picture myself dancing along and eventually I end up wanting to improvise. It helps me express my emotions and it’s made me the character I am today. It is the only thing that gets me; the only thing in my life that has never left my side and I know it never will. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it.
What are your career goals and ambitions?
I have always dreamed of being famous. I wish I could travel the world and pursue my passion by creating a whole world of dance and music and storytelling and just share it to the world. I want to sing, dance, act, write stories and songs, choreograph, anything that comes my way. I want to be in theatre and film and make a name for myself where I could be seen as an icon, a role model.
I want to inspire, motivate anyone to never give up on their dreams and tell them that if I can make it, so can they; no matter what shape or size, or whatever background you are from. Nothing can stop you except you. Keep dreaming, keep believing.
I have had the privilege of teaching Joshua for six years. When he first applied to the Waterfront Theatre School he had received a fair grounding in Tap from a previous teacher, not Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing trained, but she had definitely given him a good foundation and enthusiasm for the genre. The difference was, that Joshua is autistic, and would now be exposed to many other dance genres as a full-time student, along with studying drama and musical theatre through our Trinity College training programme.
What had been “recreational” had now evolved into a “vocational” full-time programme. I was very concerned and dubious as to whether the College could meet his requirements and give him the conclusion that he wanted i.e. performance diplomas to a professional level in various genres and teaching diplomas in dance through the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.
I then embarked on a journey that was in turn exciting, stimulating, challenging, at times frustrating and even depressing (when we collectively felt that Joshua was not making the progress that we both wanted). I will share some of the challenges. There are many degrees of autism across the spectrum. I, and the staff, had to learn that this is not a “one size fits all”. Joshua had to fit in with the existing classes and at the same time receive very specific instruction, without holding back and frustrating the rest of the class.
I discovered that Joshua was overwhelmed by the playing of loud music. This was difficult to deal with in a full tap class! He chose to be as far away from the speakers as possible and we would watch for signs of distress. When giving instruction, it had to be repeatedly specific. Specifics and detail are essential to persons with autism. Also, Joshua’s attention to detail meant that he had to weather various asides from fellow students that were sometimes within earshot and undermined his confidence.
As his journey with us progressed, Joshua became far better integrated into the training system, but we were constantly finding a balance between giving him the extra instruction that he needed and treating him like any other student in the class. Even his passion for dance became overwhelming at times, resulting in mood swings, which we had to learn to accept and cope with, and he had to learn to control. It was also necessary for him to repeat the instructions so he was totally clear on what was expected.
Adding to the initial difficulties, Joshua did not have a driving license and had to come to lessons by train and then bus. This form of public transport is very daunting for autistic people, who suffer from a form of misophonia, reacting with extreme anxiety to sound overload, and being in close proximity with crowds. For Joshua to overcome this and attend classes regularly is largely due to his exceptional parents, who have been a constant support and with us a hundred percent of the way.
After four years, we should have arrived at the conclusion of Joshua’s training, but we were not there yet. He wished to complete his Licentiate in Musical Theatre through Trinity College and the Associates in both modern and tap. In year five, we embarked on the tap, which for Joshua was the less difficult diploma.The problem arose with his ability to retain syllabus. He could create work, improvise and demonstrate to a very high level but the retention was only achieved by constant repetition.
Joshua achieved his Advanced 2 tap this year with Distinction, so clearly the demonstration was not the problem. His tutor Simone Marshall found highly innovative ways for him to recall the syllabus. When he was actually teaching a class, it was not a problem, as the syllabus book was always available to refresh but in an Associate examination, this could clearly not be the case. The way the grades logically build up is a great advantage, but of course, questions in an Associate examination can appear random. I must add that the examiners were in each case exceptional and took great cognisance of his special need.
In 2020, Joshua embarked on the Associate Modern. This was far more challenging, as Joshua also had certain physical limitations which hampered the work at higher levels. We had already mastered the tap, so the teaching methods of repetition were in place. This is again where his remarkable mother stepped in to work with us on the reinforcement of the work. Joshua spent every waking moment on the syllabus work. He was constantly in the studio working with our teachers, particularly Marguerite Jones, and also worked alone, going over the graded work constantly, until he knew it better than we did! He would even correct us in detail, much to our chagrin!
I ask myself 'what have I and my staff learned from this extraordinary journey'? Well, never give up is the first thing that comes to mind. If Joshua could persevere, so could we. His knowledge of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing work in both Modern Dance and Tap is outstanding. He passed both Associates with Distinction, gaining the highest marks in Modern with another student.
Joshua has passed to Advanced 2 Tap also with Distinction, and incidentally has sailed through his Licentiate Musical Theatre (LTCL). I feel I am much better equipped to teach students with ASD and now have several other autistic students. I have learned so much from teaching this remarkable young man and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my teaching career. My dance staff have been amazing with their team work to allow Joshua to reach his dream. I applaud the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing for their inclusivity initiatives and I am proud to be part of that journey.
As a last word, I would recommend Joshua for any teaching post and of course he has that special knowledge to connect with other autistic learners in the creative environment.