Thursday, January 17, 2008

Schoolhouse Story: Scooby Doo Meets His Match!

A story about the power of live music and singing to help a boy with autism do his work.

Ricki is eight years old and spends most of his day in a classroom set up for children who have autism. He had been observed spending much of his time singing to himself, but also paying attention to songs and music activities that were part of the regular classroom instruction. His teacher requested a music therapy assessment to evaluate the potential to help Ricki make better progress on his academic and communication objectives.

The music therapy assessment included time observing Ricki in his classroom working without music as a stimulus as well as time spent participating in specially developed music activities. After the music therapy assessment activities were completed, I observed Ricki working on a math exercise in which he was supposed to trace the numerals 1-5 on a worksheet. After he had traced only one number he began singing about Scooby Doo. He turned his paper over and started writing the words, "Scooby Doo," repeatedly on the back of the paper. Ricki's teacher said that this was a common occurrence and that it was very difficult to refocus his attention back to the assignment.

I tried verbal encouragement and reinforced my verbal requests with visual gestures and even gentle physical elbow and shoulder prompts to try and gain Ricki's attention. Ricki provided some eye contact, but continued his self-made Scooby Doo activity instead of returning to his work assignment. In addition, Ricki began pacing the room.

During the music therapy activities that were conducted before Ricki's work assignment, I had observed that he quickly learned new songs and seemed to enjoy singing. He was also very interested in strumming the guitar and playing other instruments such as shakers and drums. Based on these observations, I felt that I could use music to help Ricki refocus his attention.

I began by singing an improvised song about sitting back down and counting pictures. Unfortunately, Ricki just continued singing and verbalizing about Scooby Doo and ignored my singing. I picked up my guitar and added guitar accompaniment to my improvised song and started walking to match Ricki's pacing around the room. I immediately seemed to gain his attention and sang about Ricki sitting back down in his chair. Ricki followed the instructions of the song and continued by counting the pictures and tracing the numbers as the song directed.

I found it significant that Ricki only responded to singing that included instrumental accompaniment. I believe that it was also important that I was able to move around the room with Ricki while playing the guitar and singing. The power of music and this specific intervention are clearly evident, but this example also provides some reminders about why music as therapy is so powerful when a trained music therapist is involved in the process.

Most of the teachers I work with do not consider themselves singers and definitely don't play the guitar. They can use some recorded music and simple instruments like drums or even small keyboards to help them employ songs in the classroom, but there are limitations to what they can do. Improvisation in music is a skill and a talent that is often a key strategy in using music to help children with autism make progress on goals and objectives. I encourage the teachers I work with to explore different options and help them practice using music in their classrooms, but I am glad that I am also there to meet the needs of clients who require specially developed music strategies on the spot!

Scooby Doo, we've got some work to do now!

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