One of the best things we’ve done for Alex is to enroll him in music therapy. Although I had heard about music therapy several years ago, I was unable to find a local music therapist at that time and put the idea aside for a while. Then Alex went through the uncooperative adolescent stage where he might not have been compliant for the music therapy sessions. Last summer I read a news article online about the benefits of music therapy for children with autism, and I decided to try again to find a music therapist for Alex. A Google search led me to a group here in town that not only provides music therapy but also has experience in working with children who have autism. I felt this was a sign that we should pursue music therapy for Alex at this time. When I spoke with their director of music therapy, I was impressed by her warmth, enthusiasm, and expertise. After answering all of my questions, she suggested assigning Alex to their newest music therapist, a young man who had just completed his internship.
When I first met Noel, Alex’s music therapist, I appreciated his calm demeanor and his interest in learning more about Alex and how autism affects him. Moreover, he provides a good role model for Alex because he acts “with it,” showing Alex how to behave in a way that is appropriate for his age. A typical music therapy session consists of a variety of activities. Noel begins the session by playing guitar and singing the “Hello” song in which Alex must respond to the questions asked in the lyrics. At other times, Noel plays the guitar and has Alex accompany him on a variety of percussion instruments: drums, maracas, tambourine, or castanets. Sometimes, Noel rewards Alex by letting him listen to a jazz CD, knowing how much Alex likes jazz. In addition, Noel has been teaching Alex some basics about music and how to read notes and having him play songs on tone chimes or an electronic keyboard. The session, which lasts forty-five minutes, ends with Noel playing guitar and singing the “Goodbye” song, which, like the opening song, requires that Alex respond at certain points to the words of the song. After Noel finishes the session with Alex, he spends a few minutes going over with me how the session went and comparing notes about Alex’s behavior.
Music therapy is interesting because it is rather holistic, focusing not just on music and the sensory issues that surround it, but also language, social, and motor skills. One of the first things that we noticed when Alex began music therapy is that he was very relaxed and calm after a session, and that mellow mood lasted the rest of the day. Another positive change we noted is that Alex developed a sense of rhythm he’d never had before. Prior to music therapy, Alex would typically clap or sway off tempo, but within a few weeks of music sessions and after learning how to play the percussion instruments correctly, he could clap in time to the music. We have also found that Alex’s language skills are improving because Noel works with him on speaking clearly and using an appropriate volume. Previously, Alex would often speak softly—I suspect because he was self-conscious about his speech weaknesses—but Noel’s gentle insistence that Alex speak up has helped his self-confidence and his ability to be heard. His speech has also become more conversational since beginning music therapy; perhaps music is making connections in his brain that enhance his language skills. As his language skills have improved, his social skills have increased, as well, because he can better interact with others. Through his music sessions, he has practiced how to say hello and goodbye to people, and he has become better at following directions. Moreover, his attention span seems to have improved as he is more focused. Whether music therapy is responsible for all of these changes, or if it’s a combination of the therapy and maturation, we are grateful for the positive impact music therapy has made on Alex’s progress in several areas.
“Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; celebrate His lovely name with music.” Psalm 135:3