Saturday, April 9, 2011

Five Considerations for Autism Awareness Month

I don't usually commemorate national dog catcher's day or beautician's day, although I very much appreciate their contributions to society!  There are a few of these modern days of remembrance, however, that should receive some of our attention.  Designating February as heart health month makes a certain amount of sense since cardiac disease is one of the most widespread problems in America.  I think the month of April also deserves special attention as Autism Awareness Month.  I have written many posts about music therapy and working with people who have autism and have often found that specially developed music interventions can be a powerful therapeutic tool for children and adults with this syndrome or anyone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Here are five things to think about during this month as we pay special attention to autism:

1. Autism has much in common with music preference.  Every individual has slightly different music preferences.  We often like to join with others to celebrate common music genres, but nobody has a music album collection (or iTunes library!) that is exactly the same.  People with autism are the same as everyone else in that they have preferences too!  Some of them don't even like music!  Music therapy with children who have autism is often a very effective therapeutic medium, but it should never be universally applied to all children with autism.  Everyone is different and not all children like or respond well to music intervention.

2. Music is NOT noise!  Noise does not have rhythm, pitch, meter, phrasing, dynamics, etc.  Even if some music is loud, it is still comprised of structured sound across time.  There are many people with autism, especially children, who are noise defensive or do not like loud sounds.  These individuals, however, may still respond very well to carefully selected and presented music stimuli.  There have been many times when a parent or teacher has warned me that a certain student will not like being in music therapy because he or she doesn't like "noise."  They are often surprised to discover that their child loves music and especially music therapy interventions.

3. Recent research has shown that behavioral intervention strategies and programs are often helpful in increasing communication and appropriate social behavior skills.  Client preferred music may be used in conjunction with these therapeutic strategies as part of the reward system.  Music therapists have also been successful in using music and lyrics to structure behavior and provide instructions through songs.  

4. Children with autism often seem like they are removed from social interaction and live in a "world" of their own making.  I have found some musical instruments to be very effective in gaining the attention of these children when nothing else seems to work.  The latin cabasa (or afuche) and african shekere (or axatse) are similar in that they both have a network of beads that move around a cylindrical head.  The cabasa beads are metal and feel cool to the touch.  The beads move against a ribbed metal surface around the head of the instrument to make sound.  The shekere beads are usually plastic or hard seed pods or seashells that are tied to a net surrounding a gourd.  Children with autism seem drawn to touch and explore these instruments even if they do not play them at first with a rhythm or in a musical ensemble.  The ocean drum is another highly motivating instrument.  This hollow drum is filled with hundreds of small metal beads that roll around to create the sound of the ocean.  The drum is visually as well as aurally stimulating.  The medium sized ocean drums are perfect for playing between two people in order to facilitate social interaction!  

As a music therapist, I almost always travel with my guitar.  This instrument is very interesting for children with autism.  It has a rich acoustic sound that fills the air with live vibrations.  These vibrations can also be felt by laying a hand on the wood body of the guitar or touching the strings.  Children often want to pluck, strum or rub the strings which creates many different sounds and sensations.  Finally, I have observed that children with autism often find the lines of the strings, the sound hole, and the pegs and tuning knobs visually interesting.  Overall, the guitar is one of the most powerful music instruments in working with children who have autism.

5. Repetition and structure.  Most everyone learns through repetition.  Children with autism thrive on the concept of sameness and often insist on a certain structure.  Music therapy interventions naturally include structure through the songs used for each situation.  Familiar songs predictably feature regularly occurring sounds, rhythm and words.  Client preferred songs and music provide a supportive structure that can be used repeatedly without dulling the attention of the child.  Children with autism enjoy familiar songs without rejecting changes  in lyric content or different words and ideas introduced as additional song verses.  

Autism seems to be increasingly prevalent in children for reasons not yet understood.  I encourage you to spend some time this month thinking about those you know who have autism and how you can relate to them more effectively.  

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