Henry is a delightful boy in the second grade. He has recently been labeled as having an autism spectrum disorder and his behaviors are consistent with many of the common characteristics of autism. One of these characteristics is his desire for self-stimulation through hand flapping, visual and verbal perseveration, muscle flexing and in Henry's case, singing. For the purpose of this article, I will refer to these behaviors by the more official term, stereotypy, since "stimming" is not a word currently listed in the dictionary.
Henry has been observed to sing to himself almost all the time. He is a very good singer with excellent pitch accuracy and the ability to remember many lyric phrases. His teachers have been working with Henry to have him sing more quietly outside of the classroom or at times when he should be quiet. His teachers have noticed that when Henry is working with his hands on tasks that involve objects with significant tactile stimulation, he stops singing. He will stop singing, for example, when he is putting his hands in shaving cream or trying to button a sweater. He also decreases his stereotypic singing when he is on a therapy ball during physical therapy or adapted PE.
I have worked with Henry during music therapy sessions and observed his eager participation in the activities. He seems to crave the sensory input provided by the music stimuli. Fortunately, Henry is able to participate in music activities in more significant ways than only absorbing it as sensory stimulation. Henry has demonstrated that he can follow sung directions during movement to music activities and can start and stop singing or playing instruments as part of group activities and highly structured musical activities. In general, Henry stops his stereotypic singing for the duration of music therapy groups, approximately thirty minutes. He has also been observed to be less restless and stay in his seat better during the music therapy sessions. His teacher said that Henry has the best waiting skills during music therapy than any other time or activity of the day.
Recently, I observed Henry working in the classroom in order to obtain data about his behavior and skills outside of music therapy. I was able to see how Henry worked on writing skills, matching words and quantities and following directions. Henry was guided by picture schedules to help him stay on task, but also to allow choices and provide rewards for work completed. One of his work tasks was to match word strips to pictures. He seemed to know how to match correctly, but he took a long time because he was singing to himself throughout the entire work activity.
I had noticed that Henry preferred familiar children's songs with attractive melodies rather than chants or repetitive melodies with little variance in pitch. I composed an original melody, ad lib, that was reminiscent of songs like, "The Itsy, Bitsy Spider," or "Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Doggie Gone." I wanted to use this song to help him with his word to picture matching activity. Henry quickly began singing the song with me after only one example and we began matching his words to pictures. Henry stopped singing to himself and immediately switched to the song I had composed and sang along with me. I sang with Henry for several word matches and then gradually stopped singing with him. He was able to continue singing the new melody with each new word and finished the matching exercise with amazing speed. Before I introduced the song, he had been sitting with his work folder for five minutes just moving the word strips around without actively matching. In Henry's case, I was able to combine his need for sensory input with active learning. His singing stopped being an impediment to his productive use of time, and instead, accelerated his work.