How Music Therapy Helps Special Needs Children
Music Therapy can make all the difference for special needs children. Our article from the April 2015 issue of Utah Family Magazine outlines how.
All of us relate to music in some way. Whether we connect to a song on a deeply emotional level or simply use favorite upbeat tunes during exercise, we all have some kind of relationship with music. As a Music Therapist, I take this innately powerful and grossly underutilized medium of music and use it to help bring about meaningful learning and growth for those with special needs.
According to the Certification Board for Music Therapy, Music Therapy is “the specialized use of music by a credentialed professional who develops individualized treatment and supportive intervention for people of all ages and ability levels to address their social, communication, emotional, physical, cognitive, sensory and spiritual needs.”
Music Therapy can also address areas of communication, focus, and interaction.
“Our experience with music therapy has been extremely positive”, says Diana Bass, Mother of a 7 year old with High Functioning Autism in Utah. “We witnessed tremendous improvement in our son’s ability to attend to a task, engage in proper social interactions, and overall interest in music. Music therapy has played a significant and enduring role in our son’s treatment plan.”
Research has demonstrated that music therapy can help special needs children to:
- Increase attention span
- Improve emotional regulation
- Integrate the senses and address sensory issues
- Increase socialization
- Improve cognitive functioning
- Improve receptive and expressive communication
“His communication and eye contact has improved,” says Amanda McKeown, Mother of a 5 year old boy with Autism. “I also think he has gained more confidence in himself.”
Music Therapy is offered in both group and individual settings and always begins with a thorough assessment of the child’s needs. Based on the assessment, the Music Therapist develops a treatment plan including measureable goals and objectives to be addressed through music therapy intervention. Within one year of beginning therapy, many parents report seeing positive changes in their child, and these skills typically generalize to areas outside of the music therapy setting.
To further illustrate the power of music therapy, here are a few brief case studies from my clinical work with special needs children:
- A 15 year old with a severe seizure disorder had a goal on her IEP to learn her home address. Her teacher worked for two years to help her memorize the address, only to have her move two months later. A bit flustered, her teacher asked me to see if music therapy might help her memorize the new address more quickly. I set the address to a familiar tune then worked with her once a week for 10-15 minutes on memorization. 11 weeks later, she knew her address by heart, and could accurately repeat it when asked one year later.
- A 14 year old with Cerebral Palsy struggled to put more than 1-2 words together without using scripted phrases. When asked to repeat a 4-5 word phrase he froze and was unable to make any verbalization. I began working with him and put desired phrases to a rhythm to help elicit speech, and in the first session he was able to string 6 words together with rhythmic support. He continued to progress until the rhythmic support was gradually faded out.
- A 7 year old with High Functioning Autism was extremely anxious about engaging in social interaction. Despite this anxiety, he was willing to play an instrument in a group setting and take turns playing and listening to his peers. Over several months, he progressed from making no verbal interaction with peers to asking his peers questions when prompted to do so. Playing music as a group enabled him to feel comfortable with nonverbal social interaction, which then translated to increased comfort with verbal interaction and generalized to other settings as well.
- A 5 year old boy with Autism struggled with transitions. He would scream, lay on the floor, and kick every time he was asked to change locations or activities. I created a transition song for him which identified what he was doing before transition, what he was going to do, and continued to support him during the transition by singing about what he was doing. After 4 weeks he showed a significant improvement in his ability to transition and was able to change locations with minimal prompting.
Music Therapy is offered in private settings, schools, and various types of facilities and hospitals throughout Utah. It is considered a related or supplemental service and can be included on a child’s IEP or IFSP if deemed educationally necessary by the IEP team and subsequent evaluation. If you would like more information, please visit the website for the American Music Therapy Association (www.musictherapy.org) or the Utah Association for Music Therapists website (uamt.org) to find a Board-Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC) in your area.
Jaycie Voorhees, MM, SCMT, MT-BC is a Board Certified Music Therapist and mother of two children ages 3 and 1, with another on the way. She completed her undergraduate degree in Music Therapy at Utah State University and received a Master’s of Music in Music Therapy from Colorado State University. She is the Director of Harmony Music Therapy, LLC and specializes in working with special needs children. She currently serves as the President of the Utah Association of Music Therapists and is very passionate about her work.