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A Story That You Need to Hear about Music Therapy and Autism

Posted Jun 06 2011 12:25pm

I’ve often thought about how it would be to go through the day without having to explain to someone what it is that I do. I wondered how it would feel to answer the question “So what do you do for a living?” with a one or two word phrase and have the conversation end there, or move past it to other aspects of the job.

I also realized that the thought of that was exceedingly boring. I love talking about what I do and educating other people. As much as I would love for everyone to know what music therapy is, I then wouldn’t have the opportunity to share my excitement on such a regular basis!

It’s with the thought of the excitement I experience when talking about music therapy that I want to bring a section of a post to your attention. Ronna Kaplan, M.A., President of the American Music Therapy Association, wrote a fantastic article for the Huffington Post . In it, she describes music therapy in a variety of settings, but I want to highlight for you where she describes Music Therapy with a young boy with autism.

“George, a young boy with autism, lumbered down the hall, whining and crying as he approached the music therapy studio. He entered the room, removed his jacket, shoes and socks and threw them on the floor. From past experience I knew that it was pointless to try to immediately engage him in a structured interactive instrument-playing or turn-taking music experience. If I got too close, he attempted to pinch and scratch me. I succeeded in encouraging him to sit down on the floor, and then I moved toward the piano.”

I know many parents who have dealt with a situation similar to this, only to become frustrated with their child, the therapist, and themselves at the seeming inability to reach the child. How, they often ask, can my child benefit from therapy if they won’t even attend to what is happening?

“George continued crying and hitting his head with the palm of his hand. I listened carefully and realized that he was crying in the key of C minor. I began to improvise on the piano slowly and quietly, matching the pitches and tempo of his crying. When he stopped vocalizing, I stopped playing. When he resumed vocalizing, I resumed playing. I used the “iso-principle” to “entrain” to his responses and meet him where he was. “

Music has this phenomenal power. It can reach people in a way that redirections, words, and physical prompts cannot. What Ronna is describing here is the breaking through of George’s wall. Ronna and George are becoming present with one another and beginning to interact.

“After several minutes George gradually quieted down and stopped crying. I moved to a chair and invited him to sit across from me. Then, and only then, was he able to interact more actively with me and the music. We continued the session taking turns passing a mallet to play the drum; striking pitched plastic tubes called “boomwhackers” on our shoulders, hands and knees; hiding a beanbag up our sleeves, retrieving it and tossing it into a tambourine; and strumming the autoharp. All the while I sang short, repetitive melodies with lyrics describing our actions. A change had occurred: George’s aggression and frustration had yielded to participation and socialization. That is music therapy. “

The ability to use music to encourage participation, socialization, and then the more advanced learning that takes place through it is music therapy’s gift to children and adults with autism. It brings not only the ability to meet those goals, but the ability to do so and enjoy the process.

Share your thoughts and experiences using music to reach a child or adult with autism in the comments! I have several stories of my own, but none written quite so eloquently.

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