Motivation for Communication: Music Therapy in Autism Treatment
Music Therapy can provide a significant source of motivation in Autism treatment. Find out how:
For a child with Autism, learning to communicate is a significant barrier. Not only does the child have difficulty knowing how to communicate, but often they are so involved in their own world that they have difficult finding the motivation to communicate. This is most apparent in casual communication that is not driven by an internal need. For example, the motivation to have a conversation with somebody about the weather or sports, or to play with another person just for the sake of playing…those are areas where someone with Autism may not have any interest as it does not seem to benefit them in any way.
So how does one help a child find the motivation to communicate in Autism treatment? In order to feel motivated to communicate with others, the child needs to have some need that he or she cannot meet by themselves. I think of my own one year old. When he wants to be held (and he can’t hold himself…), he approaches me and puts his arms in the air. When he wants food, he makes a short vocalization and signs “milk” or “bread” or “eat”. If the food is readily available on his tray he does not communicate for it, rather it’s when the food is out of his reach that he is motivated to bring me into his circle of communication. Before these signs came he would cry or fuss until I figured out what it was that he wanted, but I always knew that the crying or fussiness was his way of communicating–and he was communicating because he was motivated by his inability to do something on his own.
I took a DIR Floortime course several years back (if you haven’t heard of DIR Floortime, I highly recommend looking it up!). One of the things that stood out to me was the idea of creating a situation in Autism treatment in which the child is required to communicate based on their own internal motivation. The classic example was that if a child wanted to go outside the therapist or parent would stand with their foot blocking the door so the child was forced to find a way to communicate that they wanted to go outside. Of course the initial response for most children would be to push the person out of the way, but then the therapist would take the opportunity to require a certain response from the child. Depending on their ability, the required communication could range from making eye contact to actually verbalizing “outside”, after which the therapist would then move his or her foot and allow the child to go out the door. The parent or therapist utilized the child’s internal motivation, shaped the environment (by blocking the door), then responded to the communication by giving the child what they requested once they used some form of communication. These types of interactions are only effective if the child is the one who initiates the desire as they will follow their own internal drive to get what they want.
This task can get difficult if the child is easily redirected or distracted (they may decide to abandon their outdoor plans once they run into an obstacle and decide to go play with toys instead). However there will always be opportunities throughout the day in which the child has needs that they cannot meet on their own, and it is in those moments that a parent or therapist has a golden opportunity to teach communication.
I always get excited in music therapy sessions for Autism treatment when a child shows particular interest in an instrument because I look at the interest as a basis for communication. I have one client who loves the guitar. He will sit and strum the strings while I finger chords and sing for as long as I’m willing to play. He makes eye contact, hums along, and makes requests for me to continue as soon as I stop (these requests are communicated by him placing my hand back on the guitar). His motivation to play and communicate and interact while I have the guitar is substantial. Contrast this with his behavior when I am not holding the guitar–he shows minimal response to verbal cues and directions, lays on the floor and covers his ears, and cries and hits if he can’t get something he wants. Because of his internal motivation, the guitar is teaching him appropriate (and gentle) ways of not only interacting, but communicating!
I have other clients in Autism treatment who love instruments like the thunder tube, the clatterpillar, and hand bells, and the drums. I had one client who spent the majority of our session wandering the room–he seemed to have no source of motivation to communicate or interact. I presented everything I could think of: drums, pictures, kazoos, favorite songs, toys, books…but nothing seemed to bring him out of his own world enough to have a desire to communicate in our sessions. He wandered around making no eye contact or acknowledgement that he knew I was there. Then one day I happened to pull out the thunder tube. The moment I played the instrument he stopped in his tracks and looked toward me. Then he proceeded to walk in his circle. I waited a moment and played again and saw the same response, only this time he also looked at me! I was thrilled to find something that was motivating to him, and it became a basis of communication as he wanted to keep hearing the sound. This gradually developed into a communication game in which I only played the tube when he looked at me or the instrument. Once the motivation was there, the communication began.
I could go on with story after story about how powerful motivation is in learning to communicate, but I feel like these two anecdotes paint a good picture of how important this process is. This is especially true for children in Autism treatment who have such great difficulty not only knowing how to communicate, but even in finding the motivation to communicate their needs. That’s where music therapy can play a significant role in that child’s development. Children with Autism are often drawn to music, and for many children, music can be just the source of motivation that they need in order to develop communication. See what it can do for your child!