How to Use Music As a Tool to Gain Attention With Autism
It is Thursday. I am about to meet a new child on the autism spectrum. My goal is to teach basic music skills and use these skills to build confidence, improve fine motor movement and prompt timely responses. To achieve this, I must capture the child’s attention.
Brain function researchers have applied various definitions to what attention is. Princeton University scientists Timothy Buschman and Sabine Kastner describe attention as “thoughts, emotions or motivations, relevant to goals that will get preferential processing through the brain… and without attention, cognitive functions are quite impaired.”
Difficulties in sensory processing are often visibly evident for many on the autism spectrum. Before I begin with a new student, I ask myself what will motivate them to focus, process and react—essential elements to making music? First, I always make it fun and then I apply the Five Factor Approach.
The Five Factors
Creating a comfortable, happy space is essential. The location should be familiar and free from outside stimuli. The environment also includes our attitudes. It should be one that is light-hearted and non-threatening. At our place, we don’t worry about mistakes. That only creates a palpable air of stress. My goal is for the child to feel the joy and fun that music brings.
A familiar topic or song has already been subject to brain processing. Prior to lessons, I try to learn what interests or music the student enjoys. Unfortunately, much of modern pop music has themes that are inappropriate or their compositions inapplicable for their skill level. So I have created songs that I can import lyrics to match their interests. This may be a song about a child’s family member, pet, favorite holiday, the weather, a TV show or movie character. The student can even help me add lyrics that describe what they love about the song subject. Now the song is all their own, which results in easier and more enthusiastic memory recall.
The music selection must be physically and mentally accessible. To gain their attention, the child should recognize the activity is in reach of his/her capabilities. Therefore, my beginner songs are based on repeating patterns and easy instrument movements. Song lyrics should not be overly wordy or require a wide vocal range. “Whoa-Whoas” and “La-Las” are easier to process than trying to connect long sentence structures to melody and rhythm. Measured breaks are helpful. They provide a cue for the child to process and respond. I also allow the student to experiment with the sounds of the instrument or their voice.
Music releases positive energy. In many activities in the student’s life, they are “boxed in” to regulating responses to fit the social norms. A music activity may involve singing, screaming, banging on drums or playing instrument notes as fast as they can. Other songs may be silly, subscribing to the child’s sense of humor.
Participating in music activities can provide an uninhibited release. The child may not initially realize the benefits of music and how to contribute, so it’s my job to try and instill this. For some, a motivational treat or activity is helpful to get him/her started or to complete the task. For others, a smiley face sticker might just do the trick.
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Though the long-term goal is to maintain attention and build skills, my experience has found that lively, short musical motions are best to gain attention. I have witnessed a link between speedy, peppy music and attention. We live in an environment of fast information. For many, a slower rhythm opens the door to other stimuli, and you lose the attention of many children. As I play a pattern faster and faster, the energy builds, and the child redirects toward the music.
Fast also means the length of the song or musical pattern. The exercise should be formed in a way for the child to easily anticipate the beginning and end of the song. Normally, I count to four before we begin to play our instrument. If I can get the student to count and start the song, even better!
Putting It All Together
Let’s link these ideas together in a song I call Spaghetti. The tune has a familiar theme, is musically accessible, fast and fun. It can be adapted for many instruments though below is applied for piano. (I recommend playing this one before dinner.)
Put out two fingers on one hand to make “rabbit ears.” Play this hitting two notes at a time. Play the piano along with Bom Boms and Bum Bums shown below. After the musical expression, call out your favorite food. For something a little more challenging, use only Italian foods.
Bom Bom Bum Bum Bom “SPAGHETTI”
Bom Bom Bum Bum Bom “PIZZA”
Bom Bom Bum Bum Bom “MACARONI & CHEESE,” etc.…
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
**Note, Bom Boms or Bum Bums do not have to be sung. It is a verbal expression of how the music sounds. The root chord is A-minor, so you can use an ‘A’ note on the bass. You can also jam on your drum or instrument in place of calling out.
Ample research supports how music links the differing processing compartments of the brain. A child on the spectrum may not have the natural capacity to open these brain connections. If you can motivate them and gain their attention to the music, you can open these links between sensory processing and controlled response. Once this process begins, you can then use the characteristics of song and music to maintain attention for longer periods.
Look for Using Music to Maintain Attention in an upcoming publication and Rock On!
Timothy J. Buschman, Sabine Kastner. From Behavior to Neural Dynamics: An Integrated Theory of Attention. Neuron, 2015; 88 (1): 127 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.017
This article was featured in Issue 85 – Top Strategies for Supporting your Family