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The benefits of music therapy for children and adults with autism are wide-ranging and specific to each person’s needs. Areas of positive impact for a person with autism can include improved communication skills, social development, self-expression, emotional support, cognitive development, empowerment and creativity.
Joseph is nine years old, and has autism. He had individual Nordoff Robbins music therapy sessions for 14 months.
Prior to music therapy, Joseph was very noise intolerant – often panicking and reacting to unexpected noises with violent head-banging. He would have meltdowns in the street due to traffic noise. Joseph easily became distressed. If two people spoke in a room at the same time it would cause him to react violently or bang his had.
He was extremely sensory seeking – compulsively seeking out soap to slide on a floor. He had no sense of boundary and would often run away. He had no language. There was a limited range of symbols that he understood but had not yet grasped the principal of exchanging symbols.
After several visits to music therapy, Joseph began to hum a fragment of a song we had sung to him over the years. From then on, we began to hear him humming and vocalising more.
He became more confident and his enjoyment was evident from his improved concentration and his smiles and laughter during the sessions. He clearly felt safe in the space and the length of time he was able to sustain an intense interaction with the therapist increased.
Since music therapy, his ability to process noise, whether sudden or sustained has now hugely improved and he enjoys listening and dancing to music. Joseph’s vocalisations have continued to increase. He is developing speech sounds and has a few clear words. It is beautiful to hear his voice and to see his enjoyment of music. It is incredible to see the progress that Joseph has made in music therapy. It’s amazing hearing him begin to speak and sing now. Music therapy has made such a difference to his life!”
Two years later: Joseph is now using his voice all the time! he has a few very clear words and lots of first syllables of words – just needs prompted to say the second part but will do it. It is amazing to finally hear a real wee speaking voice!! He has progressed so much with his boardmaker symbols that he is to be given a high-tech talking device to try soon which hopefully he will learn to use. He still loves music – he is always tapping out rhythms on things with his fingers and is fascinated by how things sound. He now has a piano in his bedroom which he bashes away on when he is angry and tinkles on when he is happy!
Fiona , Joseph’s mother
Why Does Music Work?
Rosie (7) spent much of the day apparently isolated from the world around her, either curled up quietly or jumping around seemingly randomly whilst making high pitched vocal sounds. The therapist provided music to precisely match her movements and the expressive sounds she made – jumping, banging, screaming or whimpering. Rosie began to vocalise in the pitch of the music and when the therapist followed her lead, she experienced a new sense of control and connection with the world around her. She began to give eye-contact and interact firstly with the therapist and then with other people in her life. The music therapist is now looking to support Rosie to develop her vocal sounds into spoken words.
WHY? We are all innately musical. Rhythm is evident in our heartbeat, walking, running and breathing. We use pitch and tone for expression in our voices, from laughing to crying. Even for a person who is highly isolated, these musical elements are always there and offer a powerful channel of communication.
Ewan (12) and James (14) were both very interested in making music on their own. Ewan made intricate patterns of melody and chords on a keyboard. James sang the “SpongeBob” song repeatedly throughout the day. They could both become fixated on their own music finding it hard to deviate, and they both had difficulty with interpreting social cues involved in direct interaction. Through working together in music therapy using percussion and also music technology, Ewan and James found they could be united in a common rhythm. They could have fun sharing a musical dialogue, that doesn’t rely on direct eye contact or close proximity. They ultimately created their own song that was presented at a school concert.
WHY? Music is a social experience, and focuses on what we share as human beings. Rhythm, pitch and playfulness are cues to communication from early infant interaction and throughout life.
Sanjeev (16) found it very difficult to transition from one space to another, and often became ‘stuck’, highly anxious and overwhelmed by sensory stimulation. The therapist matched rhythmic beats to his movements – “move your feet to the beat” – and through rhythm Sanjeev discovered a new sense of stability and order. This enabled him to move firstly into the therapy room, and eventually to transition smoothly and with confidence around the school. He now taps or drums patterns on his knees to comfort and focus him.
WHY? Musical patterns (from strongly rhythmic to loose and ‘fluid’) can provide what an individual with autism needs to help them to regulate their thoughts and brain processes.
Harry (37) became distressed at regular points throughout the day and try hurt himself and others. Staff at his care home felt that this related to his memories of traumatic childhood experiences, but Harry didn’t have the language ability to relate what had happened to him. By working in a 1:1 session with the music therapist, Harry used instruments and his vocal sounds to express himself each week, and he was supported to communicate and process his feelings of sadness, anger and pain. He was always calm and settled after his music therapy sessions, and increasingly throughout the rest of his week. He was able to take part in more activities and social events. Staff felt that ongoing music therapy sessions significantly improved the quality of his life.
WHY? Music is an emotional language, and offers a directness of expression that can bypass cognitive processes involving thought and spoken words. It can enable a deep level of emotional support.
Over the past 12 years I have had the privilege of making music with a great range of different individuals with autism. Each one of them has inspired me with their own unique melody, rhythm or song. I feel that it is through music that the uniqueness and creativity of every person with autism can be truly celebrated.
Janet McLachlan, Head Music Therapist (Greater Glasgow)