Peanut Butter and Jelly

For those of you who didn’t know, music and autism go together like peanut butter and jelly. A fantastic duo for most people, but of course, a dreadful combination for someone allergic to peanut butter or someone who hates jelly. What I’m getting at is that although music doesn’t work for every individual diagnosed on the autism spectrum, most seem to have an incredibly strong and almost magical response to music.

Once a month, West Hills Music Therapy Studio has a free music therapy group focusing on children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. This group, which is co-facilitated by two music therapists, is open to the first eight children who register. Although we strive to communicate with families prior to the group session, the truth is, we never know what we’re going to get. Today was one of those groups. I met four families for the first time – some early, some late – but all incredibly responsive to music. And I must confess that this group was the highlight of my day.

During our 45 minutes together, these four group members had the opportunity to play the drums while subtly practicing impulse control by starting and stopping on cue and acknowledging one another when it was time to pass the drum to the right. They had the opportunity to play a xylophone with guitar accompaniment while the rest of the group sang a bluesy song using the soloists name and concluding with a round of applause. We took some movement and dance breaks, threw some speckled frogs in a drum on cue, sang Old McDonald, strummed the guitar and engaged in other interventions that are fun for the group yet covertly therapeutic. We music therapists are sneaky like that.

So what makes these groups so great?

One of my most important goals is to provide a safe and positive environment where each individual can experience and achieve success. The groups are person-centered, which means that I’m assessing each member. As soon as they walk into the room, I’m looking for clues regarding both their strengths and challenges. For one child, the level of success may simply be that he stays in the circle for all 45 minutes. For another, it may be that she reaches out and strums the guitar once. As we all know, every individual is unique. This same concept applies to autism. Although there are typical behaviors and classic patterns, I have never met two children with autism who fit the same cookie cutter diagnosis. Every child is different. It makes my job both incredibly challenging and immensely exciting…because my brain never gets to take a break. A child I see on a regular basis may be in a completely different place from one week to the next. But really, aren’t we all like this? I definitely have days when I’m completely off and others where I’m baffled by my awesomeness. It’s the roller coaster of life. And approaching autism from this ‘client-centered’ perspective is crucial for a music therapist.

Music has rhythm, melody, timbre, tempo, dynamics, harmonic structure and form. These elements stimulate brainwaves, alter our breathing and heart rate, and modify our state of mind – which means that I can start a session with a music intervention that facilitates deeper breathing and anxiety reduction, and enhances neural activity while simultaneously making an individual feel more grounded and comfortable in the setting. Within minutes, I can set my group up for greater success and spend more time focusing on cognitive, social, communicative, or perceptual goals. Then, because I’m using a client-centered and carefully observing the responses of each individual, I can go back to a more grounding, comfortable, relaxing intervention at any time. Although music therapy sessions don’t always run smoothly and establishing a therapeutic relationship takes time, the overall results are typically quite remarkable.

If your child responds strongly to music and you haven’t given music therapy a try, consider finding a music therapist in your area. It may end up being a profound discovery that changes your child’s life. I’ve seen it happen.