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Autism and Music Therapy

“If I say everything I see, I might ruin someone’s day!”

Ava Driskell is singing to herself, repeating a musical reminder meant to help the 10 year-old with autism better filter what thoughts she says out loud. 

“She usually says everything that comes to her mind. Her speech is very factual,” says mom Mary Driskell. “Now, I’ll hear her stop and start singing the song, and I know it’s helping her decide what she says to others.”

This tactic is one of several the family credits to music therapy, an avenue they explored when, at age 3, Ava had lost all of her speech but could still communicate by singing. “We wanted to focus on her strengths. We knew she had deficits everywhere, so we looked for something she was good at,” Mary remembers. “We’re so thankful we found music therapy because it covers such a wide range of areas. It really is amazing.”

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of musical interventions to target an individual’s functional needs – including physical, psychological, cognitive and social skills.

“Music therapy focuses on needs for everyday life, like improving speech by singing songs or boosting independent finger movement through playing the piano,” says Lindsey Wright, a board-certified music therapist and president of the Association for Indiana Music Therapy. “When we listen to music or sing, we’re using a different part of our brain than we typically use for these skills, so we’re building new neural pathways and targeting trouble spots.”

Music therapy and autism 

Wright, who is the director of music therapy at Opportunities for Positive Growth Inc. which offers facility-based music therapy in Fishers, Lafayette and Kokomo, says the unique, engaging aspect of music therapy particularly resonates with children on the autism spectrum.

“For those who are attracted to patterns and predictability, music can be very calming,” she says. “Even if you don’t know a song at all, you know where things are going, unlike other activities you do during therapy.”

Music can also help keep children’s attention on their therapy longer, especially if the work involves a favorite song or instrument. “Music can be the backdoor approach to therapy because it’s fun,” says Sarah Ardoin, a board-certified music therapist and music therapy director for Meaningful Day Services, offering home-based music therapy across the state.

One of her therapists recalls working with a five year-old boy with autism who wasn’t able to stay focused for more than a minute. By the end of his time in music therapy, he could stay in the room for a full hour, make choices and sing along. “Music brought him into it,” Ardoin says. “We’ll often have parents observe sessions and say after, ‘I’ve never seen him do that!’ Music is just a great outlet for expression.”

Finding a music therapist 

Music therapy is growing in popularity in Indiana, with close to 200 people passing boards to become certified here in the last five years, according to the National Music Therapy Registry.

Music therapy is covered under IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Hoosier families have the distinct advantage of having music therapy covered by two Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services waivers – the Family Supports Waiver and the Community Integration and Habilitation Waiver. 

“More and more people are finding music therapy when they learn how it targets specific areas and works on multiple domains, when other therapy can only work on one at a time,” Wright says. “For families of children with autism, I think they’ll see a lot of progress with music therapy. We just want to get the word out there.”

 

For a list of certified music therapists in Indiana, visit The Association for Indiana Music Therapy at www.indianamusictherapists.com  and click on Find a Music Therapist under the About Us tab. For a national registry, visit the American Music Therapy Association at www.musictherapy.org.

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