June kicked off with Autism Awareness Week, which was geared towards raising funds for the valuable work that Autism New Zealand do within the community.

YMCA Auckland hae been doing their bit too, with the year-round provision of the YMCA Stars programme. Run in partnership with Dance Therapy New Zealand, YMCA Stars is a therapeutic dance programme for children with disabilities. Originally designed for children with autism, the success of the programme has opened up opportunities for children with other disabilities to also take part.

Held at the Mt Albert Community Centre and running the length of the school term, with weekly classes, the YMCA Stars programme has recently expanded to North Shore premises also. In heavily subsidising the programme, YMCA Auckland are making it accessible for all those in the community who can most benefit from the initiative.

Specialist Dance Movement and Arts Therapist, Anaia Treefoot, leads the programme at Mt Allbert. With a Masters degree in Clinical Arts Therapy and an extensive background working with children, Anaia brings a wealth of knowledge and practical experience to the programme. “The YMCA Stars programme is a great community initiaitive,” says Anaia. “Basically, we identified a need that wasn’t being met and the programme has continued to grow from there. Now we have parents coming from as far as Clevedon and Whangaparaoa so their children can partake.”

YMCA Stars’ therapists specialise in working with children with autism, a neural development disorder that affects information processing in the brain and can impair social interaction and communication. In taking an individualised approach, the programme limits the size of each group, helping to reduce stimulation and provide a safe environment that doesn’t overwhelm participants. 

Combining creative expression with skill development, activities differ depending on age level and skills. A consultation session with parents, prior to the start of each programme intake, also helps the therapists to determine goals for each participant. “Preschool children practice foundation skills such as turn taking, eye contact and interaction. With school children we focus on warm ups and dance movements. It’s all about working with the children’s ideas and incorporating them in to routines,” says Anaia.

The YMCA Stars is socially engaging to make sure each child reaches their full potential. The group activities initiate conversation and encourage relationships with peers. Children are able to relate to one another through action, dance and musical dialogue.  

Kev Carter, Community Development Manager at the Mt Albert YMCA commented on how successful the programme is for both the children involved as well as their parents. “By holding classes at YMCA, the Stars programme gives children with autism and other disabilities the chance to improve their social skills and interact with their peers in a non-threatening way. The programme also creates an informal social network for parents too, whereby they can share information, get advice and turn to other parents for emotional support.”