Real Life

My autistic twins’ last dance

As her autistic twin girls twirl joyfully on the lawn outside their home, mum Michelle Douglas can barely watch without tears welling up.  Her six-year-old daughters are no longer attending the only dance class for special-needs children in Auckland and Michelle is still trying to come to terms with the shocking incident behind her decision to keep her kids at home.

oonika and Chontell begged their mum for dance lessons, but Michelle knew their mild to moderate autism ruled them out of regular classes. Then she heard about StarJam, an organisation for kids with disabilities, which runs a class for those with special needs and has an invitation welcoming all children on its website.

“oy girls were so happy and excited getting ready for their first class,” recalls Michelle (41). By Michelle’s own admission, the girls were a handful on their first day but nothing prepared her for a phone call two days later, asking her to withdraw them from the class and take them to a monthly, non-dancing gathering instead.

StarJam has denied some of Michelle’s accusations, but the mother of three autistic children – she also has a son Emelio (9) – was so incensed she complained to the Commissioner for Children about her family’s experience. Michelle believes the girls – who, unlike many autistic people, speak and make eye contact – should have been given

more time to adjust to the workshop. “oonika was hugging the teacher obsessively. At the end of the class, Chontell turned the lights off twice and during the class she was very repetitive with her questions. I think that got on the teacher’s wick,” explains the loving mum.

“I was so taken aback by the phone call, I started to cry. The woman on the phone kept saying, ‘I feel it’s best if you and the girls came along to our monthly sessions.’ “I said, ‘If you knew anything about autism, you’d understand that taking a child out of her surroundings is going to confuse her.’ I was pleading with her to give them another chance.”

StarJam’s Julie Bartlett explained to Michelle that the teacher found it hard to concentrate and again suggested the twins come to monthly gatherings instead, an offer Michelle rejected because the girls had their hearts firmly set on dancing. “After pleading with her and sobbing like a child, she said I could bring them one more time,” says Michelle. “But after I hung up, I thought, ‘I’m not taking my girls where they’re not wanted.'”

The twins, who attend a mainstream primary school with the help of a teacher aide, have been asking to go back to the dance class and Michelle’s stomach sinks when she tells them they can’t. “I wish StarJam had given the girls a proper chance and let them get used to the environment and the teacher – I’m sure they would have settled down perfectly in their own time,” she says.

“They are my children, so I’m probably biased, but they’re not that bad.” Michelle’s offi cial complaint to the Commissioner for Children resulted in a mediation hearing earlier this month in which it was suggested the twins return to the dance class next year. But, disheartened by the whole saga, Michelle insists she will never take them back to StarJam.

“I took it really badly. It made me very depressed and I haven’t gotten over it. “It’s a painstakingly lonely road having three children with autism. It makes you feel like an empty shell. You want to be happy and you try, but it’s just so hard. “Their future is very important to me. And if they can’t even be accepted into something as simple as a special-needs dance course, how many more hurtful experiences are they going to encounter in life? It’s heartbreaking.”

Vicky Tyler

Starjam’s response:

StarJam CEo Julie Bartlett denies oonika and Chontell were excluded from the dance workshop. “We suggested they go to another one of our programmes, which she [Michelle] didn’t want to do. I then offered for the children to be involved in the dance workshop again. I worked very hard to fi nd a resolution.”

Julie says Michelle made the choice not to bring her daughters back. All parents attending StarJam workshops are asked to sign a form which states that the young person “is expected to conduct themselves with integrity in a manner that does not harm, offend, encroach upon or cause any danger to anyone else or themselves.”

Julie says oonika and Chontell did not follow this code and there were serious health and safety issues. “They were turning the light switches off and on, opening doors, bear-hugging the tutor and racing around endangering others. The workshop couldn’t even start,” Julie explains.

“We’ve never asked anyone not to come back. This has been the only case where a person was unwilling to consider different options. We’ve never had any complaints like this before. “We welcome all young people and no-one is asked what their disability is or even if they have one.”

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