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Dance taught autistic Shannon to speak

Posted by on Dec. 8, 2011 at 9:45 AM
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Dance taught autistic Shannon to speak

Changed her life ... dancing helped Shannon initiate conversation
Changed her life ... dancing helped Shannon initiate conversation



Performing Arts Teacher at The National Autistic Society’s Helen Allison School, Kent

THIS story demonstrates how, although it is a lifelong disability, with the right support people with autism can go on to live fulfilling lives.

If you listen to and observe people with autism, you can see where their passion lies and then allow them to explore these avenues.

This could be dance, football, singing or collecting Pokemon cards. It is important that they are given opportunities to develop interests and express themselves.

MOST parents would not bat an eyelid if their young son or daughter asked them to sit down and watch a DVD together.

But when Katreena Duffin's autistic daughter Shannon bounded up and asked just this, the mum of three struggled to hold back tears.

For the pretty 12-year-old was mute and had never once started a conversation.

Here, Katreena, 35 – who has recently moved to Swindon with husband Derek, 36, a surveyor, and their other children Paige, six, and Ian, 17 – tells HELEN GILBERT the incredible story of how starring in a dance DVD helped Shannon find a voice.

"SHANNON was born with lots of difficulties. She had no muscle tone and, as a toddler, she did not walk or speak — she could only make noises.

"At 12 months old, she would line pegs up in colour order.

"She could not tell you the order they were in because she could not speak but the pegs would line up from one side of the room to the other.

"And if my husband moved one, she would do the whole sequence again.

"It was heartbreaking not being able to engage with my daughter and I craved that connection. She lived in her own little world.

"It wasn't until Shannon was eight that doctors diagnosed autism, a complex brain disorder, and we moved her from a mainstream school to Hillingdon Manor — an independent specialist school in Middlesex for autistic children aged three to 19.

"It was a godsend. They gave her one–to-one help with reading, speech and language, which helped, but she was still very muddled and there was a lot of gobbledygook and she still refused to start a conversation.

"Shannon was also very shy and found it difficult to integrate with others. Having been bullied at mainstream school, her confidence and self-esteem were very low.

"At home, she would spend most of her time alone in her room playing computer games.

"Sometimes she would go on the Xbox with her dad — but there would never be any conversation.

"Then, four months ago, Anna Kennedy — Hillingdon Manor's founder who has two autistic sons herself — asked Shannon if she would like to appear in a dance DVD with other children from the school.

"I was not sure how well Shannon would take to it. Physically, she had very weak muscle tone and no co-ordination at all.

Closer ... Shannon and Katreena
Closer ... Shannon and Katreena

"But Anna spent a lot of time researching moves and worked with dance experts from the Pineapple Performing Arts School in London.

"She helped the children develop their spatial awareness — something that is difficult for autistic children to grasp — and ensured the children worked in groups and pairs.

"She encouraged the kids to use imagination by entering a circle and dancing freestyle to the music and urged them to bring in their favourite CDs to help them get used to the different rhythms.

"Soon, I started noticing changes in Shannon. She was growing in confidence, moving better, and her muscle tone and co-ordination improved.                                                                                                                                                "Then, one day, out of the blue, Shannon came running up to me and said, "Mum, can we watch my DVD together?" That moment was so touching — it was the first time she had ever begun a conversation.

"I just wanted to sit and absorb every moment. If I had a video camera, I would have recorded it and just kept watching it back. It was very, very overwhelming.

"This was the first time she had ever taken an interest in anything. The breakthrough was made all the more special because earlier this year Shannon was diagnosed with Potocki-Lupski Syndrome (PTLS), a very rare and newly recognised genetic condition.

"It means you have a duplication of chromosome 17, which can cause difficulty with articulation and language processing and delays in the development of motor and verbal milestones.

"Yet here was Shannon saying: "Mum, come and watch this."

"It was incredible. My little girl now exudes a confidence I have never seen before.

"She takes the DVD everywhere she goes. It has given her a focus.

"Shannon would never usually go to anyone's house but she wanted to visit our neighbour and show her the DVD. She has also shown family members the steps.

Jumping for joy ... kids from Hillingdon Manor at the Pineapple studio
Jumping for joy ... kids from Hillingdon Manor at the Pineapple studio

"In fact, Shannon is teaching her sister Paige the dance moves.

"Usually, Paige helps her out with things but for Shannon to be able to think "I am the big sister, I am going to show you," it is huge.

"It is helping her co-ordination. We've still got a long way to go but the DVD won't wear out — if it does I will buy another.

"She has got progression from it and the fact she now speaks and starts conversations means our Christmas has come early."

The DVD Step In The Right Direction with Anna Kennedy is available now priced £7.99. Call 01895 619734 or go to or

by on Dec. 8, 2011 at 9:45 AM
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