Music Therapy for Kids With Special Needs

When Christine Kantor’s son, Ethan, first started music therapy, all she heard was a lot of random banging on instruments. She wasn’t sure what to think.
“He would bang on every instrument in the room. It didn’t sound like music, it just sounded like a lot of noise,” says the San Francisco resident. “I asked if this is all it’s ever going to be? He (music therapist Ian Wilkerson) said, ‘I’m just trying to build trust.’”
Now she understands. 
Ethan, who is on the autism spectrum, has blossomed since starting music therapy when he was 12. He struggles with coordination and interacting with others. He’s sensitive to sounds and he has sensory issues, Kantor says. Ethan has difficulty trusting his senses. Because of this, he clings to rules and has a hard time adjusting to change, she explained. 
But music therapy teaches him to improvise when the rules change and gives him the confidence that he desperately needs, she says. On top of that, he’s learning to play the piano and loves songs by Sam Smith, Elton John and Justin Timberlake, as well as blues and jazz.
Now 16, Ethan is showing so much potential. “It’s a long journey. It’s like my kid found something that makes him feel good about himself, and he needs that,” Kantor says. “He’s progressing on something and he found a friend in Ian. He is now at a place where I feel like there is so much potential for him to grow up. We want to get him to his best place, where he wants to be.”
Music therapy is a clinical use of music to accomplish certain goals related to physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals. It’s used to help those with special needs, such as autism and Down syndrome, brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder and more. A music therapist must have a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy and must receive a credential issued through the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
The idea of using music to heal has been around for centuries. But it formally began after World War I and World War II when musicians would visit veterans’ hospitals around the United States to play for veterans suffering both physical and emotional trauma.
Wilkerson, Ethan’s music therapist and CEO and founder of Bay Area Music Therapy, says humans are naturally hard-wired to music and rhythm, and that’s why it is so helpful.
“The most recent brain science shows that when the brain is involved in something with music, it lights up like a firework show,” he says. “With things like the act of painting or crocheting, it’s more compartmentalized in the brain. When you’re making music, your whole brain lights up.”
Bay Area Music Therapy serves children and adults throughout the Bay Area and has studio locations in Santa Rosa and Oakland. Music therapists from the organization go to adult homes and schools. They also have private sessions with individuals with Autism, Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, behavioral challenges, physical disabilities and more.
“It helps them with communication,” says Wilkerson. “It helps them express verbally and nonverbally through music… All of a sudden, you are turning on those brain centers. You’re building their self-esteem and giving them that confidence to help them grow.”
Often a music therapist doesn’t start teaching the child music right away, Wilkerson explains. Depending on the goal, the therapist may start by playing music on a guitar to mirror what the child is doing with his or her body. Or maybe the therapist begins with breathing exercises. In many cases, the therapist needs to help the student become alert enough to focus on the music.
Beyond the Studio
Music therapy can go beyond just helping kids in a music studio or classroom.
At UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, music therapist John Mulcahy has helped children dealing with emotional issues, pain, fear of a medical procedure and rehabilitation.
He helped a teen who had a traumatic brain injury from an accident. Mulcahy started working with him when he began to show signs of coming out of a coma. 
“Once we had a sense that he could interact, I built a track around the rhythm of his heartbeat,” he says. “As he became more functioning, I was able to get him to push my hands to play key boards. After awhile, we were playing guitar.”
This was a good example, Mulcahy explained, of how music can contribute to a non-musical goal. This teen made a remarkable recovery.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to music therapy. 
“You can’t just walk into a hospital and play music. You may overstimulate patients and it can go bad,” Mulcahy says. “It’s almost like psychology. You need to understand what the issues are and what kind of goals they need to work toward. I’ll have sessions where I don’t touch a guitar and I’ll just talk about music.”
Music therapist Nicole Patton, a contractor with the Bay Area non-profit Down Syndrome Connection, says she uses music to work on many goals, including fine and gross motor skills, occupational therapy, speech, academics and social skills.
She works in both group and individual settings, mainly with those with Down syndrome in the San Mateo and Danville areas. Patton says she always interviews parents first to find out the child’s musical interests. For example, she had a child who loved Mary Poppins, so she used a lot of music from the musical. 
“The beauty of music therapy is that it’s universal and non-threatening,” Patton says. “It gives an opportunity to express themselves in a different way. It’s inviting. When you add music to something, it becomes more fun.”
For more information about music therapy, go to the American Music Therapy Association website.


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