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Arts are exciting outlet for special needs children

Arts are exciting outlet for special needs children


CEDAR FALLS – On a sunny Saturday morning, a group of children cluster around drums of all sizes in a classroom at Lincoln Elementary School. They sing a song about a rain storm, tapping their fingers and drumsticks on the drums to mimic the splatter of rain.

When it’s time for thunder to boom, a small boy leaps to his feet, a soft percussion mallet clasped in each hand and pounds a large drum with gleeful vigor.

Elsewhere in the school, other youths are busy in drama, art and movement activities as part of the UNI Spectrum Project. Not only is it fun way to spend a Saturday morning, but participants — many with special needs such as autism, cerebral palsy, hearing and vision impairments and Down syndrome — are preparing for their roles in the annual show. The event takes place next Sunday at 2 p.m. at Bengston Auditorium in Russell Hall, located on the University of Northern Iowa campus.

“Not all the kids have autism or are on the spectrum, and we have a couple of kids who have no challenges or disabilities, so we talk about the ‘spectrum of enthusiasm’ within the group. All the kids are excited about coming to Spectrum on Saturdays,” says Kevin Droe, Ph.D., associate professor of music education.

This is the third year for the UNI Spectrum Project, which runs from October to April. Cost is $75, which includes a t-shirt.

There are 50 performers, ages 5-19, paired in the buddy system with college students from UNI, and Allen College and Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. More than 80 volunteers and staff design the show and teach the routines. In 2016, volunteers were recognized with a Governor’s Volunteer Award.

“The mission is to give children an opportunity to do something in the arts on the weekends, especially in the winter months,” says Droe. “Participants can practice their socialization and communication skills, but the main goal is give children an enjoyable opportunity to participate in the arts and put on a show.”

Kathy Butler plans to go grocery shopping during the several hours her 10-year, Shelby Blake, is having a good time. “She has Down syndrome, but she fits right in. She loves to dance and sing, and it’s been great for her to have a buddy,” says Butler, a para-educator at Southdale Elementary School.

“Shelby does all the things other kids do, just slower. These activities allow children to do things for themselves, as well as simply be themselves.”

Christen O’Conner sits and visits with friends while her six-year-old son, Noah, revels in the drama project. “It’s our first year that he’s old enough to participate, and he loves it. It’s nice that there’s finally something more available for younger children like Noah,” she says.

Noah, who is on the autism spectrum, fell in love with drama when participating in theater projects lead by UNI theater professor Gretta Berghammer, a statewide leader in developing drama for youths on the spectrum. Berghammer’s theater projects also inspired Droe to start the UNI Spectrum Project.

This program is modeled after the Prism Project at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The performing arts program for students with special needs also is a training ground for Ball State students interested in working with children with special needs.

“We researched the program and saw findings that show how much impact it had on students. It was a significant impact in how they viewed other people, their career and their enjoyment of life. After seeing that research, we knew we had to start a similar project at UNI,” Droe explains.

Student volunteers are matched with children for the duration of the project. “Consistency is good for these children, and we have students who design the lessons and teach the routines and put in a lot of extra time.”

Children are divided into four groups based on age and then rotate through dance, music, drama and art activities each Saturday.

“In art, they’re building props and sculptures to exhibit at the show — some on stage, some out in the lobby. Music, dance and drama kids are doing skits, routines, even making movies, and there are individual performers who will sing a solo, dance or tell jokes,” Droe says.

“They’re the stars of the show. Our grander goal is to change perceptions that society or the community has about these children. They can do anything, and we put them on stage and rejoice in that.”


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