The Amazing Rewards of Music for Kids with Autism

Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt like you made as much of a difference in someone’s life as Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, did for George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life? I have—although it was really the other way around—I was the one being saved!

The Amazing Rewards of Music for Kids with Autism

I lead drum therapy for children and adults with all kinds of disabilities, which is how I met a seven-year-old child named Kevin at a small school in eastern Wisconsin. He has trouble, due to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although I am not terribly familiar with the specifics of his condition, focusing on tasks is challenging and he is often apprehensive, depending on who asks him to perform a particular job. It’s not uncommon for him to run around the room, occasionally playing with a toy that looks appealing. The teachers are great, but sometimes struggle to get his attention.

I worked with Kevin‘s class, providing them with various types of drums that they could bang on. This is always a success with kids but not always terribly controllable, WINK.

“Music shouldn’t be just a tune; it should be a touch.” ―Amit KalantrI

While leading the children in various fun and easy drumbeats, such as those that have a Star Wars theme, I started having them perform in sections. Doing this is always an adventure, but we adjust as we go and the kids usually have a good time. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong— just that they do their best.

I tend to act silly as well. If I keep my inhibitions out of the mix, they seem more likely to play along. I’m going to them rather than having them come to me.

Chaos is kind of the norm in that situation. If I can get more than half of the group to pay attention to me, I consider it a success. Often times, depending on the theme I use, I can get the majority of students to play along.

I also call them by name, ask them to play louder, and even, occasionally, will have them move to a different spot, often next to me (in the guise of being a “leader“). This is a strategy I use if someone is being particularly disruptive. I often find that if I give them the impression that everyone is looking to them for leadership, that they focus more on what they’re doing. And it’s very empowering for them.

One day, I was going around the circle asking the kids what their favorite character on a particular cartoon was. Sometimes I get responses to this and sometimes I get blank stares. With those, I always have a set of answers at the ready and make the kids feel like it was their idea. This is also a strategy that works well for me.

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Kevin responded to me with his favorite character. I used that to create a drumbeat for the rest of the group to use. This was incredibly empowering to Kevin. You could see it in his face. This is also a strategy that I frequently use.

“Music is the great uniter, an incredible force, something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.” —Sarah Dessen

The difference, in this case, was that a teacher walked up behind me while we were performing the drumbeat and whispered that Kevin had not responded to any male teachers all year. But he had responded to me! This was extremely exciting for all of the adults in the room.

I can’t tell you what an awesome feeling that was. I thought about that—Kevin and the connection I had made with him—for the entire two-hour trip home!

Why me? Well, I’d like to think that it’s my electric personality and ability to relate to the kids! It was really more about the drumming, though.

Banging on the drum was fun and allowed him to let his guard down, express himself, and be a part of the group. The timing of me engaging him, which was easier to do once he was having fun and making music with the class, made for a breakthrough that I won’t soon forget!

“Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!” —George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

I cracked the code. It really is a wonderful life!


This article was featured in Issue 75 – Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive