I interviewed two music therapists who work with autistic children. Their students don’t necessarily learn chord progression or how to play a song, but rather the priority is to learn essential skills: like motor skills, or how to interact with other students.
Teaching with Video
While we can think about the purpose of learning as having only one end–we learn music so that we can play music–this video illustrates the indirect benefits of learning. Just because we won’t all become professionals–professional musicians, professional writers, professional athletes–it doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from learning through music, or writing or sports. When we see the ends of learning as various–it isn’t just about becoming good at something or mastering something–then a new way of looking at how we learn emerges.
What is the difference between a music therapy session and a regular music session?
Audrey: With young classes a lot overlaps, when you are teaching a music class, even in an average class, a lot of what you are teaching isn’t music, you are teaching socialization, you are teaching so much more than learning a song or learning to play an instrument. In a private lesson, the goal is different. If I teach a private student, I’m talking about tone, intonation, rhythm, physically how you play the instrument. Whereas if I am in a music therapy session, that is secondary. If I need to teach a child to physically play the drums the most basic way to achieve what we are going to do next. Your purpose isn’t to have a beautiful performance; your purpose is whatever goal you setup ahead of time.
Michael: There is a big difference. If you walked into a music lesson you’re going to see study, you are going to see repeat, repeat until you got better. You wont see that in a music therapy session. You are going to see a flow from one thought or idea to another. You will see some structure in that. Every session has its beginning and end very clearly. In between that the child or person you are working with.
Can you give us an example of one of your best sessions?
Audrey: I had a student who has very severe autism, hardly any language. At the end of the year he is completely engaged, he can try to approximate my name, he tells me hello, good-bye. These are things before, he had no interest in me even being in the room. Now I know when he requests a song, he says, I want. So he’s really developed a connection with me. A give and take. It’s not a high level, but it’s a big improvement over what he used to do. Another student with severe autism, she shuts down, she goes to sleep. She enjoys sleeping, she is in her own mind. And we have gotten her to come out. She will play instruments. Before she wouldn’t touch it or look at it. So we got her to start looking at it and then she put her hands on the drum. Now she will actually play independently. It may not see like a lot to an outside observer, but to someone who worked with her every day, it was a big exciting moment.
Michael: If you are a really good therapist, or you really build a relationship over time. You reach a point where the child feels empowered and begins directing that session. When you reach that you feel like you’ve really got something here. In the beginning stages you set a foundation and helping lead the session. Music therapists play things like holding patterns, to keep doing, and that’s the place for the child to get comfortable and expand upon.
Since we cant film a session can you give us an overview of what a typical session might look like?
A basic overview – I always have a guitar. I always have a drum and various other instruments depending on what I am doing. This week I have been doing a lot of shakers. My kids love maracas. I have boom wackers. I always start with the hello song. I always go to an action activity, giving them instructions, getting them clued in. Some songs all I do is ask the kids to clap. That’s it. Other classes we do more steps. Always a movement song. I usually include a counting song. I try to keep it kinda connected.
I always try to mix up listening and doing. If they listen to a song then they will play instruments. So it’s a good mix. I have kids for 30 minutes. Which doesn’t seem like a long time. If you have a 3 year old with an attention span of an 18 month old, change is good. Depending on the energy level of the class I end it on a dancing song. So we can get our wiggles out before the next thing, or if there are classes before their nap-time, we do a cool down song to slow down and get ready to go down to their mats. Then I always do a good-bye song. It’s relaxed, sedated, before they do their next thing.
Michael: We are seeing more and more children on the Autism spectrum. So the issue is improving their socialization skills, improving their language skills. So clearly I go on in with some goals. I have a repertoire, so I will pull those tools in and out of the session. But there is a clear beginning and ending. There is a song where you greet…in between that are challenges. There is stuff that is grounding. I will always do something with a drum. You drum when I say 1, 2, 3, 4 and you clap with me. Beat with me. There is a point in every session that is going to challenge you. Each session that you come in and that may be something that is totally improvisational. So that is part of the creative process that is kind of a challenge with the kid you are working with. This may fall apart. This may sound terrible, but we don’t care in music therapy.