Music Alters Autism Therapy

Throughout “Autism Speaks and Sings: The Power of Music Therapy in the World of Autism”—an informative showcase of the different available music therapies for autistic children—a collection of songs were played with exuberance. Children eagerly listened and clapped their hands in coordination as they followed the singers’ hand gestures. The young and old alike were drawn into a world of imaginative lyrics about giraffes, panda bears, whales, and dance. “It’s just amazing to see how music can touch children and adults, and how it can heal and make a difference in people’s lives in so many different ways,” said Marcia E. Humpal, former vice-president of American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) and current co-chair of AMTA’s Autism Strategic Priority Workgroup.

“Autism Speaks”—held this past Wednesday at the Berklee College of Music David Friend Recital Hall—was led by national experts Humpal and Doctor Darcy D. Walworth, director of music therapy at the University of Louisville. The show sought to create awareness of the ways in which music therapy benefits children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) through a unique combination of education and performance.

ASD, according to Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Martha R. Herbert, is a condition that displays some but not all of the characteristics of autism. “Individuals with autism display abnormalities in communication, social interaction, and behavior,” she says. “In the case of ASD, the person may not meet all the strict behavioral criteria developed through extensive research, but displays some of the features.” From a neuroscientific perspective, she elaborates on how music therapy can benefit a child with autism. “Brain cells ... need to follow [a regular] rhythm to produce a response in the brain. For people with autism, there is less coordination of this rhythm from one point to another. Music helps by creating an organized and regular stimulus to the brain that helps the brain get organized to keep track of the rhythm.”

Music therapy itself is rather individualized and focuses on the child’s past experiences and background with music, and thus there is a wide variety of music that can be therapeutic. “It can be any kind of music because every individual has a different preference,” says Humpal. “We try to use music that appeals to the individual person. For example, for teenagers, we won’t be using Rock and Roll from the ’50s but rather a lot of the current hits that really capture their attention.” Walworth, who further draws a distinction between the quality and structure of music, concurs. “From a musician’s perspective, the music quality matters a lot. Is it classical? Is it jazz? Is it stimulating? Is it peaceful? But from a music therapist’s perspective, it is the structure of the music and the application of it that engages the child. So the child’s past experience with music matters.”

The wide variety of music showcased is a clear testament to the range of music available for all children with different degrees of ASD. Music played included traditional children’s songs such as “Old MacDonald” as well as modern pop songs with altered lyrics. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” was used to practice the pronunciation of consonants and vowels, and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was used to help find a channel for emotional expression. The instruments included the guitar, piano, and drums, while the songs ranged from engaging and familiar—like the “Hokey Pokey”—to soothing and original. Roxanne Curzi, mother of seven-year-old Evan who has been diagnosed with autism, had a positive reaction to the show. “I think it’s really nice,” she says. “My son has a really hard time with attention and he was pretty attentive the whole time.”

There is still much left to be discovered in music therapy for children with autism. Currently, Walworth is working towards developing an evidence-based approach, which entails documenting the outcomes and protocols that have proven to be more effective. While music therapy has been classified as an emerging discipline—a category containing fields that have shown a degree of effectiveness in current research studies but have not yet qualified as full-fledged disciplines—researchers still face problems with funding and future direction. “Autism Speaks and Sings” not only interactively engaged both children and their families, but also raised awareness about the future possibilities of alternative therapies available for children with ASD.

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