Music is a fantastic and powerful tool that can be used in so many different ways. Not only is there a wide variety of instruments (including voice) to play, learn and perfect, it can also be used to reach those who may not otherwise be reachable or who are unable to communicate in any other way.
Two out of four of my children have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). This disorder interferes with the brain’s ability to effectively process sensory information taken in from the environment through the various sensory systems. From my experience, I discovered, almost accidentally, that music can provide a comforting way to reach these children.
My daughter was basically non-verbal and so reactive to every form of sensory input we had no idea how to effectively communicate with her. One day, her father took her out to the field behind our apartment building to run around. After a few minutes, I heard screaming and saw from our fence that my daughter was in the middle of the field writhing, crying and yelling, ‘No’!.
I ran to her, knowing it was already too late to try picking her up because her oversensitivity towards touch would have only made things worse. So I knelt down beside her and did the only thing I could think of. I sang.
I sang every song that came to my mind from jazz to classic rock to classical pieces. Finally, I tried ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles. Just then, her screaming slowly softened, then stopped as she stared up at the sky. That was when I realized that music was the best path in helping my child. Welcome to the wonderful world of Music Therapy.
Music therapy isn’t counselling, per se. It uses musical experiences to help and inspire a person to achieve non-musical goals. It’s particularly useful when incorporated into an already developed therapy plan and very effective for non-verbal individuals. As in my daughter’s case, it created an environment that inspired her to feel safe enough to attempt communication. If Music Therapy is prescribed, there would be a need for a qualified and trained Music Therapist to be included in the overall therapy team. However, a music teacher doesn’t need the professional designation to include some of the principles of music therapy in their lesson plans.
A few points for using music in working with these children include:
- Choose music that coincides with current needs. There is research showing that no specific type or style of music affects every listener the same way. While practising my children’s at-home therapy routines, for example, I found that offering a variety of music worked best. Slow and relaxing classical is excellent for concentration most days, while on others lively upbeat tunes are perfect for muscle-engaging activities that get the body moving.
- Structuring a lesson outline that coincides with their therapy plan. What I love the most about music classes in schools is that children are exposed to a wide variety of instruments. For children like mine, music class gives them a safe environment to have their sensory systems tapped into in a variety of fun ways.
- Understand non-musical goals. The greatest bonus is that singing or playing an instrument not only increases self-esteem and confidence, it also helps the child achieve non-musical goals such as attention span, fine and gross motor skills, social skills and communication.
- Understand the auditory sensory system. Children with auditory dysfunction hear and experience music very differently. It isn’t only about the volume of the music. It also includes pitch, tone, vibration, rhythm and the different sounds coming out when many instruments play together. Music teachers who take the time to truly understand this sensory system, and what happens to those with a dysfunction in this area, will have a tremendous benefit in engaging these children.
As a mother of special needs children, a person with a strong background in music as well as a firsthand witness to what music and Music Therapy can truly do for these children, I believe wholeheartedly in the healing power of music. And my highest appreciation and kudos goes to those who care enough to keep it alive.
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