Meghan is a 12 year old girl with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), She has words, but uses them to repeat lines from TV or movies, she plays with her stuffed animals and often times appears to be unaware of the world around her. Meghan didn’t participate in the music therapy groups when they first started in her facility. I would always greet her and ask her to join us but the teacher told me that she doesn’t participate in any group activities and it was one of her goals.
In March I wrote a blog series called “Sensory Integration, Not Just for Autism Spectrum Disorders” in which I discussed the importance of using a multi-sensory approach in the music therapy group so that individual goals can be achieved in the group setting. This month I have written about the importance of “Rhythmic Entrainment, What is it and Why is it Important in Music Therapy?” “Rhythmic Entrainment for Motor Planning“, and “Rhythmic Entrainment in Music Therapy to Assist in Language Development”. I discussed that I focus on the rhythmic aspects of the music to support neurological and physiological growth. These were the techniques I was using in Meghan’s class.
As the weeks went on, Meghan began to move closer to the group but still held onto her dolls and seemed to be unaware of her surroundings. I continued to observe her while leading the group and interacting with the other kids and I noticed that after about several weeks her dolls started dancing to the music and then each week, I noticed more and more involvement. One day, a staff member brought 2 chairs up and sat them behind the circle, she sat in one and had Meghan and her dolls sit in the other. At first she could only stay for the “Hello” song, but then she would leave the group and come back multiple times, participating in background but not as a part of the group. Finally Meghan began to feel more comfortable and stayed in the group longer and we began to move her closer to the group as well. She didn’t show interest in the books, visuals or movement activities, but she was interested in the instruments and would repeat the names, and began to request them but didn’t actually play them herself. So the assistant would sit next to her and play the instruments and sing to model appropriate behavior. The assistant began to fade her assistance and Meghan stayed in the group with the instrument beside her and would sing to her dolls. One day I looked over and Meghan was playing the guiro, she was holding correctly and playing it rhythmically with the group. This story isn’t over as I still work with Meghan and have for the past two years. But now she is able to sit for most of the session, she still has her stuffed dolls and they play instruments with her. She is able to trade and share instruments with other kids in the group and she will even request songs if asked.
I have mentioned the multi-sensory approach that I use in my music therapy groups in many of my blogs. I provide a wide variety of sensory interventions using visuals, tactile objects (instruments) and movement so that each child can receive a variety of sensory input. In Meghan’s case it was the instrument playing that was the motivator for her, and when she did start to play, she was able to play rhythmically with the group. This was a signal to me that even though Meghan appeared disconnected and unaware at the beginning, she was still receiving the input on a neurological basis.
I have also seen this same phenomenon on the Memory Care units that I serve. An adult may seem lost in their own world, but when I hand them an instrument and start singing a familiar song, they are able to come out for a while and be in the moment with the group. Marilyn is one such client. She is very musical and hums to herself all day. During the sing-along activities she is able to sing most of the songs and can play the instruments appropriately. Marilyn is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and she cannot answer simple questions most of the time. In February, we were singing love songs for Valentine’s Day (of course) and Marilyn had been happily singing and playing so I looked at her and asked her what she did for Valentine’s Day as a child. She looked me in the eye and said “We made valentines out of paper and glue and lace doilies.” It was so great to be in that moment with her. Sadly, Marilyn hasn’t been able to respond appropriately since then, but she is still singing and playing instruments and I know that the music is working in her brain and in her body.
Music Therapists are not the only ones looking at the phenomenon of rhythmic entrainment in the brain. Scientists have found that rhythm and speech are so tied together that they have identified similar behavior in animals that have some speech capabilities such as parrots and dolphins. Check out the links below and come back to www.mindfullmusic.com for my next blog. Until then, embrace your musical mind.