Music. It surrounds us, fills us, and provides a blissful accompaniment to our everyday existence. We listen to it in our cars as we sit in an traffic jam that lasts eternity. I listen when I run as the music seems to lift me and carry me across the harsh pavement in a way that my feet cannot alone. Music motivates us, defines us, and adds richness to our culture and society.
Certainly, it is no different for our children. It has been established time and time again that music can soothe and reach our children in ways that we as parents simply cannot explain. Of course, not all kinds of music reach our children, as not all kinds of music reach us. My son Jack loves Bob Marley. He also finds solace in the gentle classical sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. The gentle melodies of many classic children’s songs call to him, like singing his ABCs – a personal favorite of his as magnetic letters have been a fixation of his for nearly a year.
Like many children on the spectrum, Jack possesses an incredible memory. He also struggles with many language and communication challenges. This is where music reaches him in a way that I cannot fully understand. You see, Jack can really only use one to two-word phrases at this time, and even those are only “more” or “all done” plus a noun, but he can sing an entire song from memory after hearing it only once. Being minimally verbal – he is echolalic about 80-90% of the time – it is a wonder to hear him sing “Three Little Birds” in its entirety.
If that was not enough evidence of the power of music with our children, I offer this – music helps regulate my boy. We have done therapeutic listening in the past and bore witness to way in which he could do the unthinkable – eat a new food with lessened or no anxiety – by listening to music. His therapists sing to him through anxiety and transitions, and it helps him – reaches him – in a way that spoken language simply does not.
This is not the only therapeutic exposure that Jack gets to music. He receives about 30 minutes weekly of music therapy in school, and I am told consistently that it is his absolute favorite part of the school week.
We also just started a new music program for children with special needs. We are lucky that it is not only held throughout the summer, but it is also free (can you imagine – something for special needs children that is free?) and over the weekend, which provides an extra hour of structure to our weekends – and I need not tell you how much better the weekends are with structure!
Each weekly music session, my boy and I walked into what is a large choir room at a local church. There were swings, crash cushions, and all manner of sensory seating options for the children. There is a wide range of abilities and ages, and the sheer volume of activity can be overwhelming for him. It’s a lot to take in from a visual and auditory standpoint. Ultimately, I cannot control the noise level or activity. No one can. My boy’s anxiety always surrounds him and, like a bird taking flight from a predator, he begins to pace the room, remaining constantly on the go. When I can finally corral him near the circle of children, he secures a place behind a heavy wagon and pushes it back and forth. He needs the heavy work and the input. Back and forth he goes in a flurry of movement, humming along the way, which is one of his little signs to me that he’s getting overwhelmed.
Then, the most magical thing happens! The leader of the music group begins to play a welcoming song on her acoustic guitar. The other children in the circle sit attentively and, in a rare display of absolute peace and stillness in my boy, his body falls silent, his feet stop their cadence, and his hands drop to his side.
It is all I can do to keep my mouth from hanging agape at the sight. Here is my boy – a constant wave building strength and crashing into whatever is in his path – completely still at the light strumming of a guitar.
If you were to look at his face, you might think that he was not listening to the music. His eyes look far off, not focusing on anything. However, I would tell you that you’re wrong. It takes more effort for my boy, and I’d argue for many kids just like him, to focus on that solitary sensation of the music entering their ears. That distance should not be mistaken for a lack of attention, but it is a sign that my boy is listening, focusing on the sound and, for the briefest of moments, absolutely at peace.
Then, it is inevitable that my boy will wander over towards the guitar. His teacher, being a special needs mom herself, understands his need to move, so there is no rule against his wandering in this class. He can be himself, endless activity and all. He approaches the teacher with her guitar and she holds it out towards him ever so quietly, as a word from her lips might make him break in the other direction. Tentatively, Jack reaches for the strings and gives them a gentle strum. You can see the smile – his beautifully full smile – spread from cheek-to-cheek as his hands take flight. She allows him to strum the guitar some more and she begins to sing softly to the original song.
Sitting on the edge of my seat in the back of the room, I am always caught by this sight. Here is my boy – my boy who fears everything, who avoids everything, who jumps at the smallest sound – strumming a guitar in the middle of a circle of other children with a teacher. He alternates the strumming and flapping and I cannot help but smile at my little boy participating, in spite of it all, because of the music. It warms this mama’s heart.
For our kids who are so sensitive to so many elements of the world around them, it can be so difficult to find an activity that truly seems to bring them calm. For us parents, isn’t that what is important? In a way, it’s the nice thing about parenting a special needs child, because we can go into activities such as music without this illusion that our child will come out the next Mozart. Rather, success hinges on whether or not our children enjoy the experience.
Yet, sometimes it’s from thinking out of the box, bringing them into an environment catered to their needs and filled with understanding, that we see these glimpses of happiness and true enjoyment. If you have never tried music – and not just music therapy, but actual music classes – with your children, I would highly recommend it. You might find that the music speaks to your child, too.