By Andrea Doumar OTR/L (@ot_room)
April is Autism Awareness Month. This month we highlight all the abilities, bring awareness, and promote acceptance of children and adults with Autism. All children are unique especially those with Autism. One child with autism, may have a completely different skill set or learning style than another child with autism. Each child will face different challenges, and it is important to have a plethora of interventions to work with different children to see which styles of therapy, structures or environments the child will excel in.
Soundsory is a music and movement program that is designed to focus on the integration of rhythm in order to improve motor and cognitive skills through the stimulation of the vestibular system. One of the key functions of the vestibular system is that it is strongly connected to the emotional system and the feeling of one’s own bodily state.
The vestibular system participates in the creation of what is called “the feeling of what happens" which is the ability to be aware of one’s own emotional state at any particular moment in time. Soundsory’s primary focus is to achieve such a goal.
Social and Emotional Development
As an Occupational Therapist, I work with many students who have Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is common for many children with autism to have fine motor delays, however all children are different. Others might thrive in fine motor activities, but struggle with sensory processing or emotional regulation for example. These areas might impact their skills, abilities, and participation within their daily life and overall functionality. Social and emotional development in children is a very important domain. It is pivotal to the progression of a child into an adolescent, which an Occupational Therapist can help facilitate.
Social and emotional development involves a child to be able to understand their own feelings and helps them to be able to express themselves and control their impulses. Emotion regulation is an internal process through which a person is able to maintain a comfortable state of arousal by modulating one or more aspects of his/her emotion (Moore, 2003). Children with Autism may have difficulty expressing their emotions, as well as, managing their regulation system. Developing the ability to manage behavior and feelings is the basics of emotional regulation, which is critical for a child’s mental and physical health (Foran, 2009). Occupational Therapists can focus on emotional regulation through various interventions to help them be successful in their daily lives as they transition from toddlers, to adolescents, to adults.
Adults and children express themselves through a variety of different ways, whether it be the way we dress, the way we style our hair, or by the music we listen to. For some, music is a much needed outlet. Music can be the tell-tale sign of someone’s mood. For instance, depending on the mood a person is in, may determine the type of music they listen to on their phone or radio. Even in movies the music sets the tone for a scene as viewed in horror films when something bad is going to happen.
Music is a simple way to understand and identify emotions immediately. For children with Autism, understanding their emotions does not come as easy, the same way you may be able to predict someone’s emotions by reading the expression on their face, a child with autism would likely have greater difficulty reading that expression or even express the appropriate facial reaction during a given situation. The way I process my own emotions when listening to sad music or a song which may upset me may be completely different than the way a child with Autism who struggles identifying that they may be feeling sad or overwhelmed within their environment. Listening to certain music can also help change or regulate my own mood. Even when I am having a bad day, if one of my favorite songs comes on the radio that can help elevate my mood.
Benefits of Using Music as Therapy
- Emotional regulation impairments are common among children with Autism ( Conner, White, Beck, Golt, Smith, & Mazefsky, 2019). As stated, children with Autism have difficulty with emotional expressions, as well as, matching a specific emotion to a tone of voice. Music is one way for children with Autism to aid in the development of the emotional regulation system. Through music, children are able to express their own emotions, and understand how someone else may be feeling and integrate them within various situations.
- For example, if a child is angry they might choose to use the drums to let out some of their frustration. By playing music, a child’s sensory system is flowing through their senses by the sound of the music as well as the tactile feedback of the feeling and sensation of the instructment like the drums vibrating underneath their fingertips. Some children with Autism have difficulties specifically verbalizing they are angry or upset. We can see these emotions through their various behaviors or body language through music.
- Music can be a useful tool to allow children to express their own emotions. Providing a child with a choice, is a great opportunity to have them be engaged and see how they are feeling. If they pick a loud, upbeat song to dance to, it might signify that they are happy, or if they pick a slow song it might symbolize sadness. As an occupational therapist, I see many children that become frustrated or overstimulated by things within their environment.
- Through music and different songs, I can assist children to be able to find that song that helps calm them down and soothe their mind and body to be able to return to their school day or daily activities. By working through a child’s emotional state, a therapist or caregiver will be able to identify how the child is feeling, as well as, be able to assist the child to cope with that specific emotion as needed to be able to return to any given activity.
Attention and Social Skills
- Music may also be beneficial for other areas, such as increasing attention or developing social skills with peers. Music requires so many areas of the brain and other senses to be working in conjunction.
- When listening to music or trying to play an instrument an increase in attention can be noted. The senses involved in just playing an instrument include vision, auditory, and tactile systems all working at one time.
- A child is also working the motor areas of the brain to facilitate the movements, as well as, working on applying graded pressure to the instruments. Children with Autism specifically are targeting all of these areas, as well as, balancing their emotions all together. In this instance, music is becoming the therapy to help them succeed. Not only is listening and playing with instruments targeting the skills above, but music is also targeting social participation.
- The social skills involved include sharing, turn taking, or identifying similar emotions of another peer.
- Music is further targeting the social and emotional development of children with Autism in unique ways. Many people with Autism can communicate their emotions and physical actions more easily through music than through words or facial expressions.
- Music therapy provides children with an opportunity for self-expression and gives them a sense of autonomy(Srinivasan & Bhat, 2013). The ability to express themselves, allows myself and other caregivers to understand how they are feeling, and assist them in facilitating their needs.
A quick backstory, when I was in school I completed one of my fieldworks at a specialized school for children with various disabilities, including Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and seizure disorders. Two to three times a week, the children attended a music therapy class. The excitement the children had for going to music therapy was able to be seen right on their faces when they heard the music. During the music therapy class, they worked on many skills including shaking maracas and drums, singing to songs, sharing, turn taking, and working through emotions based on the tempo of the song.
The children were always engaged and wanted to participate. Children were able to request what they wanted to play or listen to a specific song, which targeted speech development. Allowing the children to be interactive with each other and the therapist sparked a strong interest and passion to these students. I was able to observe the social participation interactions between the students, as well as, watch them develop their motor skills through each music therapy session. It was astounding to be able to see first hand the benefits of music with a variety of diagnoses and the lasting effects the music had on the individual students. Teachers would also concur that the students were often better behaved and regulated their emotions with greater proficiency on days which they attended music therapy. Music appeared to be a strong motivator in helping the children be successful not only in school, but as they returned home.
Surprisingly on the other hand, at my current job there are no music lessons for the students. As new research is becoming more prevalent, many of the teachers incorporate their own music or youtube songs into their daily lessons as an outlet for the students. Studies are showing that music and music therapy plays an important role in promoting social, emotional and motivational development in children with Autism (Kim, Wigram, & Gold, 2019). Many of the students would benefit from more music throughout the day as you can see the excitement just when they hear a song on the radio of the classroom. This is a great tool for parents to implement after school to help regulate after a long day or to enjoy some time during the weekend. Some favorite songs of the children I see are “Tooty-Ta” or “We are the Dinosaurs,” which both involve a motor component for children to dance, sing, and interact with others.
Those are two songs that are very upbeat, but music can also be utilized as a calming strategy that allows children to calm their bodies to be able to return to the table to complete fine motor or visual motor activities. Incorporating breathing with music also has incredible soothing effects to down regulate the system. It is clearly evident that we can see that music plays a beneficial role in children with autism.
Soundsory is a helpful tool for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or children with sensory processing disorders.
Soundsory works on a child’s motor skills development and helps with their emotional regulation and executive function. Soundsory builds on the foundation of the senses to stimulate the brain to work on all areas of development and learning.
Conner, C. M., White, S. W., Beck, K. B., Golt, J., Smith, I. C., & Mazefsky, C. A. (2019). Improving emotion regulation ability in autism: The Emotional Awareness and Skills Enhancement (EASE) program. Autism, 23(5), 1273–1287. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318810709
Foran, Lucille. (2009). Listening to Music: Helping Children Regulate Their Emotions and Improve Learning in the Classroom. Educational Horizons.
Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13(4), 389–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361309105660
Moore K. S. (2013). A systematic review on the neural effects of music on emotion regulation: implications for music therapy practice. Journal of music therapy, 50(3), 198–242. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/50.3.198
Srinivasan, S. M., & Bhat, A. N. (2013). A review of “music and movement” therapies for children with autism: embodied interventions for multisystem development. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 7.