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by Alex Hudson
BBC News
May 6, 2010


Dressed in feathers and sequins and pirouetting across a packed ballroom, 10-year-old Jimmy Hobley is competing for the Disco Kid championship in Blackpool – the biggest disco championship in Europe. But what makes Jimmy different from the other dancers vying for the title is that he has autism.

Until he began dancing, he used to wear splints on his legs to help his walking and, until less than two years ago, he could not read or write.

“Before the dancing, I was a nobody,” says Jimmy. “I was a regular school kid with special needs. Dancing makes me feel like I’m normal… like all the other kids… it’s like somebody’s fixed my brain inside.”

There are over half a million people in the UK with autism and it tends to run in families. All three children in the Hobley family, who live in Redcar, Teesside, have the disorder.

George, James’s twin, “was always the leader” says Sheila Hobley, the mother of the boys. “He spoke first, walked first and was the only one who could read. James was always in George’s shadow.

“James’s life at home was playing on his computer games and a lot of television.”

But that all changed when a leaflet for a local dance class came through the door.

“James was keen, was throwing himself around unable to do the splits. He was trying his best but at times I thought he would injure himself,” says Sheila.

Within four months, he was at his first disco competition with a routine of his own. He was only expected to make the first round but he made it right through to the final.

He hardly slept the night after the first competition and could not wait for the next one.

Since he began, he has won over 20 competitions, including the beginners’ title in the World Championships when he was only eight.

‘Big jump’

This new talent instilled a new found confidence and, while many children with autism find it difficult to form relationships, it gave him friends from all around the UK.

Along with the disco, Jimmy now has a new passion – ballet. His concentration and ability to remember ballet positions and routines shows the remarkable intellectual development he has made, along with dramatic improvements with his reading and writing.

“In general most children with autism would show gradual improvements over time,” says Dr Morrell, who diagnosed Jimmy at the age of four.

“The difference with James is that he appears to have made a big jump in such a short time and that is unusual I’d say.”

And Sheila is sure that it has something to do with his dancing. “I think since he started dancing there’s been a massive improvement. It’s like someone switched the light on,” she says.

And she is not the only one. “I am convinced,” says Desmond Kelly, artistic director of Elmhurst School for Dance. “One day someone will do a proper study of what dance does to the brain. When you dance you have to think of everything from the finger tips to the toes.”

Scientific evidence

The idea that dancing could help those with learning difficulties is nothing new.

Trial dance classes for autistic children were reported by the New York Times as long ago as 1985 and countless anecdotes of the benefit of dancing fill up internet message boards the world over. The problem is finding hard, scientific evidence behind the stories. Even Sheila admits that the lack of research means some are sceptical.

“Some people say he might have started reading and writing anyway,” she says. “But if he hadn’t tried dancing then I could still have James locked in his own world. I really can’t say.”

The National Autistic Society (NAS) says that it is the outlet, not just the dancing itself, that could have helped Jimmy’s transformation. “People with autism are often isolated and excluded from social opportunities due to a lack of understanding of their disability and this is especially true of sporting and activity groups,” says Carol Povey, director of the NAS’s Centre for Autism.

“Whilst dancing may not be appropriate for everyone, it is certainly true that attending a group and taking part in an activity where the individual is accepted and valued for what they can offer can have a huge impact on self esteem and help teach social skills.”

Dancing – by all accounts – has been great for Jimmy but it hasn’t been all plain sailing for the family. With outfits costing more than £600 and entry fees to competitions, dancing has not been a cheap hobby and George, without something to focus his attention on, is struggling.

Sheila says: “I know that George is feeling it because he has somehow been left behind. He’s not needed by Jimmy. He’s grown away from Jimmy in quite a lot of respects.”

Despite the worries about George, Sheila says that “even with the benefit of hindsight we would do it again” because of the progress Jimmy has made.

His dancing teacher Anita Brown has high hopes: “The rate Jimmy is going with the attitude that he’s got, if he keeps that manner, he’s destined for success,” she says.

And while Jimmy dreams of dancing with Birmingham Royal Ballet and then perhaps even dancing in Russia, Sheila has more immediate concerns for her son. “He’s going to the Disco World Championships in June in Blackpool. He’s got another outfit for that – we’ve saved up for it for nearly a year now.

“If he can make the final, anything can happen.”

Autism, Disco & Me is on Thursday 6 May at 2100 BST on BBC Three. You can also watch it on iPlayer shortly after.


Copyright 2010 BBC

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