Music Therapy is a wonderful thing for young children with autism. My non-verbal five year old has really enjoyed it. This post will go into more depth on music therapy but first I want to look at using music at home. Music is a fantastic way to interact with your child and there are so many different musical activities.
Using music at home to interact with your child
The best thing to do is expose young children to lots of different types of music. Different musical styles and sounds are important to see what preferences they have. But remember most of us like different music depending on our mood and our preferences change over time.
At about 2.5 years old my autistic son would get very upset when I sang nursery rhymes to him. I assumed he didn’t like my tone deaf singing voice. Then he started to get upset with singing at nursery too. It took a while for me to figure it out. His distress was because he knew he was supposed to be joining in. The problem was he didn’t know how.
My son loves music, he did as a baby and does now. I found his reaction to nursery rhymes very odd. He now has a better language understanding and can follow more of the rhymes. It is clear to me now that the issue was understanding. I wish I had realised this earlier as there is so much I could have done to make it easier for him to join in.
Here are some of our favourite musical activities to do at home.
The Music Bag
I have a giant bag full of children’s musical instruments we have collected over time. Instruments make great presents for birthdays and Christmas for little ones. We have some lovely wooden instruments given to us, we also have some tatty plastic instruments that came free from magazines or in party bags and the kids love them all just the same.
I keep our bag full of instruments on top of the kitchen cupboard and it comes out a couple of times a week. Keeping the bag away from reach means it is exciting every time it comes out. If I have lots of friends over and there are children everywhere its a great time to bring out the instruments.
Some young autistic children can be hard to engage with. Having exciting activities to hand that are not always available has made a difference in our house.
My youngest will often go through every instrument in the bag because he is so excited to explore every different sound. The variety provides opportunities for all toddlers favourite activities shaking, blowing and banging.
Some of our favourite instruments are:
Nursery Rhymes & Singing
Current favourites in our house are head shoulders knees and toes, wind the bobbin up, incy wincy spider and twinkle twinkle little star. Young children are more responsive to rhymes and song than normal speech so may be more attentive to singing and nursery rhymes than normal speech.
I am not a natural singer and I can never remember all the words but the kids don’t care. Remember they won’t judge your voice (at first anyway) and the more you do it the more comfortable you will become.
When my kids were tiny I would struggle to remember all the traditional nursery rhymes. Thankfully we had some great books full of them to sing from, my favourite is the Classic Treasury of Nursery Rhymes and Songs Illustrated by Tracey Moroney.
Youtube is full of nursery rhymes and they all get stuck in your head for days. I totally recommend Little Baby Bum although watch out its very addictive for toddlers!!
I also like using Pinterest to find good ideas related to nursery rhymes.
You should get your Bookstart packs through your health visitor, nursery or children’s centre and these usually have some nursery rhyme suggestions.
We have a drawstring bag full of nursery rhyme cards, the kids can take a turn to pick a card out of the bag for us to sing. You can do the same with toys, so a toy bus for wheels on the busor a toy sheep for Baa Baa black sheep. This is a very popular activity.
When singing familiar songs pause for the child to fill in the words (give them time). Singing is great for supporting speech and language development. The repetition of the same rhymes over and over everyday is really helpful for language development. Take advantage of the times you have a captive audience in the car or at the dinner table. My son loves to do the peekaboo song with a towel at bath time. You can also use more calming songs at bedtime to help settle kids to bed. Typically both my kids just want to sing / play five little monkeys jumping on the bed this I do not recommend at bedtime!
Music out and about
Music with groups is great and you will find it used in most baby and toddler sessions. Most libraries have free rhyme time groups.
I think the quality of most music groups is down to the individual running the group, some people are great others not. Try out local groups they often offer free taster sessions to see what you think.
When my son got a bit older the group sessions became too much for him. We would do it at home instead using the Sing and Sign video which is a lovely activity to do together at home.
Keep an eye out for children’s concerts as this can be a brilliant experience for kids. Although it won’t always work out better to try and see how you get on. I was mortified when we went to a music for miniatures concert and my youngest ran over and started to join in with the pianist bashing the piano as the man was playing his beautiful classical music!
We are in the car all the time, this is a great opportunity to put on the radio, play different music for the kids to experience. I would recommend getting a kids CD for the car we love singing along to the Moana and Cbeebies CD’s.
Music supporting learning
There are lots of brilliant counting rhymes which will help teach children to count such as five little ducks, ten green bottles and 5 little monkeys.
My son is non-verbal and uses the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). We have a music activity choice board that he can use to request different instruments or songs.
My son really struggles with language so using visual aids to support his understanding has made a real difference to him.
Here is an example of our visual aid for head shoulders knees and toes:
One favourite is our interactive visual aid for ten green bottles, both boys love taking turns to make the bottles fall off the wall!
As you can see it is well loved.
Kids love to dance and they really let themselves go. I have a few upbeat playlists on my phone for when we want a dance party in the living room. This is a brilliant way to spend an hour if the weather is bad and you are stuck indoors with energetic kids. My boys current favourite songs to dance to are – Happy by Pharrell Williams and Shake it off by Taylor Swift.
For my eldest boys birthday last year we bought aKids Keyboard from the Early Learning Centre it wasn’t cheap but it is loved by both kids and all their friends. They use it to join in with Johnny when we watch the ultimate kids musical – SING. SING is very popular in our house if you haven’t seen it I really recommend it.
Music therapy is delivered by a musical therapist and is very different to the musical activities described above.
Who is music therapy for?
It is great for children with autism, developmental delays, relationship difficulties, emotional distress and communication difficulties. It is particularly good for those who struggle with words and or verbal communication. Music is a way to express feelings without words. It was only when my son started at a specialist pre-school at 3.5 years old that we got access to music therapy. I wish I had started it earlier.
What is music therapy?
A music therapy session is led by an established healthcare professional. They use music to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs.
The therapy can be delivered 1-1 or in a group which encourages socialisation. A session will usually provide some structured musical activities alongside some free expression time.
Music therapy is designed to express feelings, enhance communication, promote physical rehabilitation, manage stress and promote quality of life. Many skills are encouraged through the sessions including:
- turn taking
- eye contact
- awareness of self and others.
In most sessions a large and varied selection of percussion instruments is available to allow freedom of choice. My son was very overwhelmed by the amount of instruments in his music therapists room which resembled a hoarders den. After a couple of sessions with me joining him he got used to the environment and absolutely loved exploring all the different sounds and sensory experiences.
The sessions provide an opportunity to play musical instruments with no experience needed. There is no right or wrong way to play or interact with music. Creative and spontaneous freedom of expression is encouraged and never criticised.
Our experience of music therapy
I don’t know what I was expecting from music therapy but I was surprised how beneficial it was for supporting speech and language development. The aim of the therapist is to match the child’s spontaneous sounds to form co-created music. A supportive relationship is built up with the therapist over a series of sessions. A good therapist should be adapting to the child’s needs and strengthening the child’s abilities to make choices and independently lead the shared music making.
As a child becomes more familiar with the environment and therapist they should be relaxed and enjoying the sessions. This enjoyment along with use of sounds helps to encourage and stimulate language. This process certainly worked well for my boy.
A very interesting instrument that my son was able to use with his music therapist was the Musii. The Musii is a multi sensory interactive inflatable, it was developed so that anyone of any ability can play it. It is a sensory inflatable that creates different colour and sounds as it is pressed. It plays through a musical scale even with a very light touch touch. This multi sensory approach was great for my son who loved it.
How to find a music therapist
Talk to any professional services that you are already using (speech & language, nursery, schools, autism service or support groups) as they may be able to provide local recommendations.
There is lots of great information on the British Association for music therapy website.
More information is also available from the American music therapy association.
I hope you found this useful and let me know any great ideas you have for musical activities in the comments.