What is the best way to support your child with special needs during a music therapy session?

We specialize in music therapy for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. For those of us familiar with ASD, we know this spectrum is vast. I work with children who need constant movement and other children who seem content leaning against a warm body for the duration of our session. Creating the ideal therapeutic environment for each child as an individual is truly a dance that changes from week to week.

My top five recommendations for parents striving to support their children during these sessions

1. Ask your music therapist how you can help.

I provide initial assessments for families to get an idea of how a child responds to music. We play with different instruments, we sing upbeat songs, familiar songs, new songs, and slow songs. I assess gross motor movement, fine motor movement, their speech, their social engagement, and begin the process of estimating their level of cognitive functioning. In addition, I’m noticing whether or not they can sit through a song, mimic my movements, and copy my vocalizations. Finally, I sit down with the parents and listen. What goals do they wish to achieve through music therapy? What responses have they seen in their child when it comes to music? When this process is complete, I recommend that a parents sits in on our music therapy sessions or leaves their child with me as they gently close the door to the waiting room. Either way, parents should still play an active role in music therapy for their child.

2. If you sit in on sessions, you become one of the group members.

If I recommend that you sit in on a session, plan to sit on a cushion with or next to your child. Sing, clap and stomp along to our songs. If we’re making circles with scarves and your child is only swinging from side to side, sit in front of them and model exactly what you want. If that doesn’t work, take the other end of their scarf and gently help them. If that still isn’t working, come up behind them and lightly prompt. As they improve, clap, coo, and exclaim your pride and excitement. Diminish your prompting as they improve and trust that next week, you’ll be prompting a little less and cooing a little more.

3. If you're the parent in the waiting room, ask the music therapist for your homework assignment.

In my experience, children who engage in our songs and activities on a daily basis achieve their goals much faster. Ask your music therapist to record the session. If that isn’t possible, ask for a recording or a youtube link to the songs being used in sessions. Then engage your child throughout the week with these songs. Sing and dance to these songs with your children at home, in the car, share them with allied health professionals and teachers. Make music as much as possible!

4. Learn the art of providing fill-in-the-blank opportunities with songs.

If your child is quiet and language is a big goal, try singing a familiar song with an opportunity for them to fill in the last word of each phrase. Sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle little _____’ and wait with an excited and confident expression for them to sing the last word. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t be dismayed. Keep going and try it with every phrase. Say things like, “Your turn,” or “Help me sing!” Experiment with different levels of prompting such as touching their arm when it’s their turn, grabbing both their legs if you’re sitting across from them, or giving them a little squeeze if you’re holding them. As they improve, fade out more of the lyrics until they’re singing most of the song. Then sing together and celebrate your child’s victorious progress.

5. Trust the process.

Although music therapy may not be the solution for every special needs child, I’ve seen so many children blossom and flourish over the years. I always trust that children are listening even if they aren’t making eye contact or even looking in my direction. I trust their physiologic responses to music; the power of entrainment. I trust that the day will come when a parent calls me or sends a video of their child singing one of our songs in the car or while playing in their room. I trust that their brains are sorting out the different aspects of our sessions and that, within weeks or even days, they’ll find their own unique way to display their progress. As a team, parents, children, and their music therapists will find the best way in which music fits into their lives.