At Music Therapy Services of Portland, we love facilitating small groups. The art of creating an ideal music therapy group for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum is a challenge that involves the help of parents, caretakers, and allied health professionals. One of the most important elements that we take into consideration is sensory processing.

Early Childhood Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Linn Wakeford’s chapter in Early Childhood Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders, Edited by Petra Kern and Marcia Humpal, explains that researchers have categorized sensory processing into three primary patterns:

  • Hypo-responsiveness (under responsiveness)
  • Hyper-responsiveness (overly responsive)
  • Sensory seeking behaviors

Many children are a mix of some hyper-responsive patterns and other hypo-responsive patterns. The sensory systems include: auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, vestibular, and proprioceptive.

Individual Sensory Systems

As a music therapist, being aware of the sensory systems of each individual in a group is critical and impacts the instruments and interventions I utilize. So how can parents help their child choose the most appropriate music therapy group? Consider how your child responds to each of these musical elements:

  • Intensity – Does she prefer loud or soft sounds?
  • Frequency – Does he want the same sound over and over again or new sounds?
  • Duration – How long does she enjoy the sensation?
  • Rhythm – Does he enjoy rhythmic predictability or more variation and unpredictability?
  • Novelty – Does she respond aversively to change and newness?
  • Complexity – Does he enjoy multiple sensations within music like an orchestra or minimal instruments like only voice or guitar?

Many sensory processing theories incorporate adaptations and modifications that are much easier to address in a one-to-one setting. The children who are able to receive both individual and group music therapy sessions are certainly at an advantage because we are able to learn and address their sensory needs better. But even new children can succeed within a group when communication with parents and caretakers is incorporated. Our ultimate objective is to minimize the influence of sensory processing differences at all times.

Share what you notice about your child’s response to music by calling, sending an email, or completing our survey. If you’re a returning family, we invite you to resubmit our survey or provide us with any additional information you’ve observed or received from allied health professionals. Help us make your child’s music therapy group experience as beneficial as possible!

For those of you facilitating groups or individual sessions, consider the following:

  • The lighting
  • The temperature
  • Noises such as cars, the air conditioner, people talking
  • Do the kids need movement, deep pressure, or a familiar songs at a slow and steady tempo?
  • Can you have the child who is up and moving around be an assistant while the child under the blanket plays with the cabasa?

If a child gets up, walks to the corner, and comes back, they may be practicing self regulation. If they’re hiding under a blanket, they may be coping with their sensory needs. Ask yourself whether these actions are important or if you can work around them and possibly address these issues down the road. Otherwise, is there a way to meet these different needs within the various interventions of your group session?  We will address these questions more in an upcoming blog explaining the iso-principal approach during music therapy sessions.

Two additional video resources

the first is more for parents and the second is one you can watch with your child:

A detailed video by Chirp on sensory processing needs and strategies.

A Child’s View of Sensory Processing