April is National Autism Awareness Month. In the past 25 years, awareness of autism has grown, and treatment strategies, research, and cultural attitudes have shifted as well. This year, the Autism Society has issued a call to move “beyond simply promoting autism awareness to encouraging friends and collaborators to become partners in movement toward acceptance and appreciation.”
Music therapists are well positioned to meet this call to action. Right now, there is a child with autism in a music therapy session who is discovering her voice through music, a young man practicing impulse control, and a group of preschool children using musical sounds to help them identify emotions.
Music therapy creates a space where people with autism can explore and celebrate their unique talents and gifts while making progress towards their goals. Music provides a motivating and fun way to explore the sensory world and practice communication and social interaction. “What is exciting is that music is often ‘the thing’ that reaches a child with autism, and connects him or her to others,” states Dr. Tracy Richardson, professor and director of Music Therapy at St-Mary-of-the-Woods College. “It is not just a way to shape or control ‘behaviors’ but it is a way to reach into the essence of that child and say, ‘Here I am! Let’s be together in the music!’”
Communication and language development are often areas of challenge for people who have autism spectrum disorders. Music therapists use a variety of techniques to facilitate communication, using timing, melody, and the intrinsic ability of music to build expectation.
Musical interactions between a therapist and client can be used to encourage and practice back and forth communication. For example, think of the song “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Go ahead, sing it to yourself. When you get to, “The monkey thought it was all in good fun…” imagine an expectant pause, that continues until the child strikes a drum with a loud “POP!” Now we finish, “…goes the weasel.” In this example, expectation builds and provides a cue for the child to engage in his or her part of this reciprocal communication.
Music provides opportunities for both verbal and nonverbal interaction. Early communicative behaviors like eye gaze and joint-attention may not come naturally to children with autism, but research demonstrates that music therapy can aid in the development of these skills. For those who are drawn to music, singing may come more easily than speaking. This has to do with the way music activates different areas of the brain than speaking does. Music therapy techniques are used to help clients practice verbal responses through music, which can later translate into nonmusical verbal statements.
Challenges with social skills are a hallmark for individuals with autism. Music is an active way to engage with others using a medium that is engaging and familiar. Music therapy groups are a natural place for people to practice social skills ranging from sharing to taking turns to listening to others. Music provides a predictable structure that many people with autism find comforting. Yet, within this structure, music also brings novelty and fun!
A common technique to practice social skills is to have group members take turns playing instruments within the context of a song. This requires clients to direct their attention outwards to the musical structure of the song, use impulse control to wait for their turn, and then to interact through music with the therapist and peers.
“In the process of playing the drums with me in that environment, he’s learning how to take turns.”
We remember information that is paired with a song better than information taught to us in other ways. How often do you still hear the ABC song go through your head, or Conjunction, junction what’s your function from Schoolhouse Rock? Music therapists frequently create songs that teach kids with ASD what is expected in various social situations, from social greetings to what to expect during a fire drill.
Music At Home
If you have a loved one with autism, there are many ways to incorporate more music into your lives.
Sing together- Words that are sung provide a clearer signal to the brain than spoken words. Singing is an important way to bond with others. It doesn’t matter if you think you have a “good” singing voice or not, what matters is that you are connecting with your loved one. Make up simple songs as you go about your day that relate to tasks or transitions, such as cleaning up toys or getting ready for dinner.
Play instruments- Instruments provide a great way to interact without using words or language. Instruments allow us to explore sounds and movements, learn cause and effect, and listen to others. Instruments can be simple- they can even include your own body (think clapping, patting your knees, or stomping). Homemade instruments provide the opportunity to create something unique. Plastic easter eggs can be made into shakers, and almost any container can become a drum.
Listen to music- Learning someone else’s music preferences can give you insight into their world. Notice what songs relax or excite your loved one, as this can be helpful when looking for strategies to engage or calm. Music can help children and teenagers learn to identify and label emotions and can be a starting point for discussion with teens and adults.