April is Autism Awareness Month

As a board-certified music therapist, I have worked with many families affected by autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects one in 110 children. But to say that it affects just the children is a misnomer. ASD affects whole families, often impacting how these families can relate to other families in their community.

Through my work as a music therapist, I have the unique opportunity to address children’s non-music goals through music therapy interventions that are specifically chosen with each child’s and family’s needs in mind. In addition, my work as a Music Together teacher has shown me that community-based music and movement experiences also serve a very important role in the lives of families of children with autism, as well as families of children with other types of special needs. It brings me such satisfaction to witness the joy and relief on a mom’s face when she hears her non-verbal child sing a song from start to finish for the first time, or sees her child playing a drum or dancing with scarves. These types of participatory, musical responses signify that music therapy is a wonderful way of reaching children who are non-verbal or who are typically withdrawn.

One music therapy experience that I’ll never forget involved a little girl with autism named “Carly” (not her real name). Carly was so anxious, she did not speak to anyone outside of her immediate family. Knowing that she loved music and songs, Carly’s mother brought her to the Music Together Princeton Lab School for individual music therapy sessions with me. I used the current semester’s Music Together collection in our sessions so that we could sing familiar songs together. As soon as we started playing and singing, Carly’s anxiety lessened. The first time I heard her sing, I caught her mother’s eye and we both smiled. Carly had found her voice again!

Recent brain research suggests that actively participating in music experiences benefits activity in all areas of the brain. In short, music learning supports all learning. While the types of music experiences that cause a child with autism to “light up” vary greatly from child to child, engaging in a discussion with therapists and families about the inclusive nature of community music-making is a first step.

Finding a community that accepts and includes all children in a family can be very challenging. I encourage everyone to be an advocate for active music-making environments that accept and include all children and adults, regardless of their developmental level or perceived musical ability. I further encourage everyone to be an advocate for awareness of autism and other developmental challenges and to be empathetic to the struggles inherent in raising and teaching children with disabilities.

For further information on treatments for ASD, see links on nutrition, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, applied behavior analysis, and Floortime.