Can Music Help a Child with Autism Cope When Stuck at Home?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for many and can be particularly difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
With little time to prepare, they had to leave school and acclimate to distance learning, which doesn’t offer the support and structure of the classroom.
Add in the boredom and frustration that can come with isolation and the burden of having to wear a mask—so hard for those with sensory sensitivities—and practice social distancing.
It is not surprising children might turn inward or act out. Even as the country begins to open up, many restrictions remain in place, and the security of school is months away.
As the single mother of a teenager with autism, I have struggled at times to balance the needs of my son with the demands of work. One of our favorite ways to connect is through music. For safety’s sake, we limit our trips to stores, but we take long drives and listen to the radio, everything from Prince to Bruce Springsteen to Taylor Swift.
My son has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and is never happier than when he is singing along to a favorite song.
Music can be a powerful tool for people with autism. It can foster social communication, promote emotional regulation, and increase relatedness. Music can even change brain function by strengthening the connections between different parts of the brain, which can have a positive effect on behavior and lead to improvements in relationships.1
As Greg Kemp, a school psychologist at Pleasantville High School in Pleasantville, NY, says, “The social, expressive, and attentional benefits of music therapy…connects the student to the teacher and the students to each other.”
Luckily, my son has been able to continue his music lessons with David Meyers of Rock on Music School (www.rockonmusicschool.com) through Zoom. While he can be reluctant to play an instrument, he loves singing and talking about music with his instructor.
Meyers has been teaching guitar, piano, and drums, as well as other instruments, in New York’s Westchester and Putnam Counties for 25 years and has put together a catalog of “accessible music” for those with developmental disabilities, including autism.
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Meyers believes “some of the natural impacts of music” remain, even in a virtual platform. “With some students, if you asked them a question in conversation, they may not even respond. But sometimes the song acts like a catalyst…easing and directing the student’s response.”
Although it can be harder to explain music skills through Zoom, and there can be glitches in the technology, the one-to-one lessons “offer the flexibility and attention to connect with [the students].”
My son is also taking part in a weekly “quarantine choir” on Zoom, run by Accessible Arts NY (www.accessibleartsny.com), which provides inclusive arts programs from their base in New York’s Suffolk County. Jenna Douglas LCAT, MT-BC, runs the small choir (my son’s group has eight members, all of whom have special needs) and sees the program as a success story, even with the challenges technology brings to the program.
Members of a choir that meet in person can easily sing together, but on a virtual platform, when too many members talk or sing together, the sound cuts out, or the screen will freeze. By putting the members on mute, she can sing and play the guitar, and everyone can hear her.
Douglas was unsure of how it would work, but she is thrilled with how things played out: “I, as the therapist and leader of the group, can still see everyone singing along and when the sing-along is done, I unmute everybody and give everyone a chance to talk with each other. This way, everyone is getting the social interaction of the group as well as the music.”
Kara Gustafsson, whose daughter Britt belongs to the choir, sees the benefit of her daughter being able to sing without others listening in. “It has given her an opportunity to sing in a nonjudgmental environment,” Gustafsson says.
I eavesdropped on my son’s choir recently and heard the members talking to the instructor and to one another about songs they loved. They chose to sing Imagine by John Lennon, and my son’s voice carried into the next room. He sounded relaxed and joyful, and during these trying times, that is very much a success story.
How to help your child get ready for a virtual music class
Prepare your child by explaining how the class will be run. Make sure you have any instruments or lyric sheets ready to go.
Be a cheerleader
Express your enthusiasm for the class in a way that suits your child’s needs. Show him/her the songs the class will be singing. Strum that guitar a few times.
Get your tech together
Have that Zoom meeting code and password handy. Check that the video and audio set up match the sensory needs of your child. Stay ahead of the game.
Remain on standby
Hang out close enough, so if there is an issue, you can try to talk your child through it. Maybe even give him/her an occasional thumbs-up.
But don’t hover
This is his/her time. You’re not trying to raise the next Billboard Top Ten artist. The goal for the next forty-five minutes is to let your child chill out and connect with his/her peers.
After the class, check in with your son or daughter to see how he/she thinks things went. You may want to wait a bit before reaching out. Children on the autism spectrum often need time to decompress, especially after doing something new.
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD