By Ryan Judd
Ryan Judd is a board certified music therapist with a master’s degree in Music Therapy. He has been in private practice and specializing in children with special needs for more than 14 years. Ryan is known for his ability to connect with and motivate his clients through music and humor.
Ryan is also the founder of The Rhythm Tree, which is dedicated to educating parents, therapists and teachers on how to use music to help children with special needs learn, grow and thrive. Ryan has an educational video blog at www.TheRhythmTree.com where you can learn great ways to use music to help your child.
1) What is music therapy?
Music Therapy is a research-based health care profession that uses music to help clients reach their therapeutic goals. Ok, that sounds interesting, but what exactly does that mean? Let’s take a closer look.
- “Research-based,” indicates that the techniques and methods that music therapists use are based on research that is being done at many universities, hospitals and institutions throughout the world.
- “Health care profession,” means that music therapy is a field that is based on rehabilitative and medical models. It is similar to the professions of physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy.
- “Uses music to help clients reach their therapeutic goals,” means that music therapists help clients work on goals that might typically be found on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For example, a music therapist working with a child with non-verbal autism might address the goal of increased communication through the use of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device.
It is important to stress that music therapy focuses on non-musical goals. Sure, we use instruments and music to address these goals, but our primary aim is not to teach clients how to play an instrument or learn how to read music. It is all about using music to help children learn and improve developmental skills such as motor or speech/communication skills.
2) What are the benefits associated with music therapy?
Now that we have a better idea of what music therapy is, let’s take a look at how it can benefit children with special needs. Music therapists who work with children with developmental disabilities address therapeutic goals in the following areas:
• Social skill development – During individual sessions and music therapy groups, children practice greetings, turn taking, eye contact, requesting, self-expression, collaboration, etc. through musical activities. For example, a music therapist might lead a turn-taking song that involves each child taking a turn with a special instrument and then handing it to another child.
• Social-Emotional – Music therapists write personalized songs to teach a child how to identify feelings and how to use coping strategies when they feel overwhelmed. Musical social stories are also an effective way to address these goals.
• Behavioral – Captivating music is used to help a child sustain attention to an activity. Musical activities that incorporate wait time and require impulse control help develop these behavioral skills. Musical social stories are also used to address behavioral goals.
• Speech and communication – A music therapist will write personalized songs to sing with a client. These fun and motivating songs isolate speech sounds and have lots of repetition built into them, i.e. “Big Bear Takes a Bubble Bath.” Musical activities and instruments are used to motivate the use of verbal language, i.e. “I want the drum.” Augmentative and alternative communication methods and devices can be used to improve non-verbal communication, i.e. using sign language or a communication app to make choices between songs and instruments.
• Fine and gross motor – Percussive instruments, like maracas and shakers, are used to practice fine and gross motor skills. Movement-based musical activities are used to motivate a child to practice sitting up, crawling, walking, jumping, etc.
• Academic – Academic information can be put into a song format so that recall is improved. A classic example of this is the “ABC” song.
• Self-esteem – Through success-based musical activities, children get the chance to be heard, express themselves and feel good about their accomplishments.
3) Where does music therapy take place?
Music therapy can take place in the home, school or clinical setting.
4) What are some ways in which parents can use music to help children with autism improve skills?
Motor Skill Development
Let’s start with motor skills. I love incorporating instrument playing into my sessions, and you can do this at home with simple percussive instruments such as rhythm sticks, maracas, drums and tambourines. Put on some fun, upbeat music that your child loves, and start jamming along. When your child is engaged and motivated, suddenly pause the music, and hold a tambourine up for them to strike. Hold it above your child’s head to address shoulder stability and extension. If your child is working on crossing mid-line, put a drumstick in their right hand, and hold the tambourine to the left side of their body. Have your child tap two maracas or rhythm sticks together to improve bilateral coordination. There are so many variations of this, depending on their developmental needs. As soon as they perform the desired behavior, immediately start the music back up, and continue playing along until the next pause.
Personalizing Skill-Based Songs
You can also sing an encouraging song to your child so that they will be motivated to practice these motor skills. Just take a familiar melody and change the words to personalize it. For example, I have written out the lyrics to “Wheels on the Bus,” and have included personalized lyrics underneath them. I have matched these words up, so that you can get a better feel for how to sing the melody with the new words.
The wheels on the bus go round and round,
Oh, Jack hits the big drum, up and down
round and round, round and round.
up and down, up and down.
The wheels on the bus go round and round,
Oh, Jack hits the big drum, up and down,
all a-round the town.
and he makes this sound.
Whether your child is speaking, signing, or using Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC devices), music can help them learn speech and communication skills. One easy way to work on these skills is to use “Sing and Read” books with your child. These are books that have taken classic kids songs such as “Twinkle Twinkle,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “Five Little Ducks,” and have put these songs into a story format. The pictures on the page can be used as visual prompts for the words you are reading. If your child is working on saying, signing, or using an AAC device to communicate the word “duck,” for example, then just create a big, dramatic pause before singing this word. Then, point to the duck on the page, and wait for your child to say, sign or use an AAC device to communicate this word.
The Limitless Potential of Music
I hope that you now have a better understanding of what music therapy is, how it can benefit your child and how you can begin to explore the limitless potential of using music with your child. Whether you are looking to build a deeper connection, or help your child learn developmental skills, music is a source of motivation and fun that you can easily tap into.
I have a free monthly newsletter that gives great suggestions and resources for using music with your child, so please sign up at www.therhythmtree.com/user-registration.
If you are interested in learning more about music therapy and want to see my work in action, please visit my website and video blog at www.TheRhythmTree.com.