Opening up new worlds through circus

 Fiona McKay Fri 20 January 17


This article looks at the value of circus through focusing on a local, and not so local, circus program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Some children don’t fit well into competitive mainstream sport. There are many different reasons why. Maybe they just can’t be motivated to leave on-screen games for something that is less predictably fun and definitely more physically demanding. For those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it might be challenges with social, fine or gross motor skills which make playing a team sport objectionable. But circus is an activity that can provide a way to motivate children - and adults alike - to have fun while exercising and developing skills. 

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder at Dapto High School have all developed through attending a ‘Circus for Sport’ program for two terms each year at Circus Monoxide in Fairy Meadow. While challenging them, circus has suited most of these teenagers. Perhaps surprisingly, as many of them, much of the time, are anxious, inclined to give up if it’s too difficult, confronted by sensory issues and/or social connection.

There is the boy who doesn’t like being touched but is so motivated that he allows circus trainers, teachers and peers to lift him up above their heads while he lies on their hands with his arms crossed over his chest. The 110kg boy determined to get himself up onto a trapeze, because his ‘chunky’ old teacher has just had a go. The teen who’s done some primary school gymnastics and shines on the mini-tramp, then on trapeze. The students who have never skipped rope before but join in because having a go is more important than getting it right. The girl who practices hard, but frustratingly has to make a small change in the routine. No meltdown, she adapts. The skills that individuals reveal: he’s a natural on silks, they’re natural clowns and he finds juggling easy. And, for all at circus, a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Kristy Seymour runs ‘Circus Stars’ a circus school on the Gold Coast specifically for children on the Autism spectrum. After working on a circus program for children with special needs and seeing positive results, Kristy completed her Master’s thesis on ‘How Circus training can improve the well-being of autistic children and their families’. Her thesis explores issues such as how circus enables these students to take risks, physically and emotionally and how their strength, co-ordination, flexibility and physical awareness) are extended in an environment which enhances their social and creative development.
Circus Stars’ families notice a difference in some of the children’s behaviours and abilities in daily life. Differences have also been evident in the ‘Circus for Sport’ teens. One mother identifies her son’s rise in confidence. A student pinpoints that circus taught him ‘Never give up!’  A disengaged teen struggles through each school week looking forward to Circusday. The teens who perform before an audience, often for the first time in their lives, encourage and support one another backstage. They are individuals, part of a group with whom, in a circus setting, they’ve unconsciously further developed a range of essential life skills including communication and co-operation. Is circus more effective than therapy?

It’s not just children with special needs who benefit from learning to take risks, physically and emotionally, while having fun. It’s anyone: the creative young individual who fell in love with circus at nine and is still with it at 22; a child in foster care who found a ‘tribe’ in circus; the mother of a toddler for whom circus is an escape, a way to get fit, and enjoy the company of women one night a week; a depressed, recently divorced woman who found release and healing through circus; a 67 year old grandmother who now shares her new hooping skills with her granddaughter; the young rugby player who went to circus to learn how to do aerials, and found, as a result of that engagement, a new confidence to change careers and apply for the police force. Circus opens up a new world in so many different ways.

For more information on Circus WOW, you can either visit their website - CLICK HERE or visit their Facebook Page.

About the Author

Fiona McKay is a teacher in the Autism Support Unit at Dapto High School and initiated the ‘Circus for Sport’ program in 2010 after seeing how her daughter, who had rejected competitive mainstream team sport, had embraced circus and grown through it. 

Sitting as a mum watching classes, Fiona saw an inclusiveness and affirmation of individual difference which she thought would ‘work’ for her students. There were so many different activities at circus, something might capture their interest. And that proved true. Fiona’s son who has ASD, in contrast to his sister, took a more conventional route and played soccer, struggling for a year under a very patient and understanding coach to learn to manage the rules and work as a team member. But once he got it, he got it and the coach wished there were more like him in the team. Every child is different, and different activities suit them. 

Fiona has discovered circus suits her too, and since her daughter left home, has been a member of Circus WOW, Women Of Wollongong’s community circus, where she is currently Chair of the Management Committee.  


Woonona Medical Practice (Weight Management Program)
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Circus Monoxide

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