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Music therapy session snapshot: group music therapy for children on the autism spectrum

Music therapy is an innovative approach to treatment for a wide range of needs and populations.

Rhythm and Strings Music Therapy provides services to individuals and schools in New Hampshire and Southern Maine and specializes in autism spectrum disorders. We support children in reaching developmental goals in a fun and engaging way. At the end of a 45 minute session, a child may have worked very hard on many skills but to the child it hardly feels like work because of the joyful and engaging effects music has on our brains and bodies. We utilize the elements of music to enhance learning and increase receptive and expressive language, motor skills, cognitive skills and communication.

When first working with a child or group we assess over several sessions. When the assessment is complete we are able to create our long term goals which are broken into short term benchmarks. Our treatment plans may look similar to a child's IEP with quarterly short-term benchmarks to reach a longterm goal. Depending upon the needs of the child or group, our music therapy sessions may target:

developing attention, following a two-step direction, impulse control, developing gross/fine motor skills, targeting certain speech sounds, communication, and/or increasing social skills.

Here is a snapshot of one of our pre-school groups for children on the autism spectrum. This group is a weekly school-based music therapy group comprised of 8-10 children ages 3-5.

Greeting: A 'hello song" provides a transition into the music therapy group. Ours has a motor section (clap three times, give a little wave) to engage the kids and bring their attention to the group. Our greeting gives children an opportunity to say "hi," wave, or use their AAC device. Children are encouraged to look to see who is sitting next to them to increase social awareness.

Sensory Motor Song: Second is a motor imitation song that teaches kids movements that provide sensory and regulatory input such as brushing legs, brushing arms, self hug, etc. This is such an important tool for children to be able to access on their own to regulate their bodies. Children with sensory sensitivities may avoid being touched by others, this activity allows them to receive sensory input by performing the actions themselves.

Motor imitation: Often we will have a second motor imitation song that gets kids moving and readies

their brains and bodies for learning. This may be a "follow the leader" type of motor imitation song, or it may be a movement to recorded music or a song in sign language. We target gross motor actions such as stomping, reaching, stretching, patting, and clapping. We also target crossing midline which is a very important movement for our brains! Rolling hands, pat /cross on knees, self hug, and brushing arms are all ways we cross our midline during these songs. Songs in sign language work on bringing hands to midline and fine motor imitation (and communication!).

Song with Pictures: Our songs with pictures tell a story and develop sequencing words and actions. The visual component paired with the words or a label and a motor action provide a "full body" approach to learning. These songs will often include sign language for functional words and animals. We write the song and create the visuals based directly on the needs of the group. For example if we assess a need to be a certain speech sound, this will be the sound we sing during the chorus. If isolating the index finger and pointing is a goal the chorus may also include this skill. In 1:1 sessions we are able to tailor this specifically to the needs of the child, in groups we create overarching goals.

Instruments: Each session we bring in something tactile that is typically an instrument (but may be our weighted ball, scarves, or animals). We love playing instruments to target: following directions, impulse control, bilateral coordination, gross and fine motor skills, crossing midline turn taking, and awareness of others.

Sensory Motor Song: Bringing out instruments can be challenging for many children as volume increases and passing and sharing instruments can be tough. We follow instruments with a sensory motor song which is typically a motor imitation song that helps children to regulate and ready their bodies and brains for the end of the group.

Song in Sign Language: One of our favorite ways to end a group is with a song in sign language. This is often a recorded song, "You've Got a Friend in Me" and "What a Wonderful World" are two of our favorites. Working on the sign language targets fine and gross motor and a calming recorded song helps to further regulate brains and bodies.

Goodbye: At the end we always sing "Thank you for Music," which is a song that provides a transition song to children (cueing the end of music), and also encourages awareness of others and social skills.

Rhythm and Strings music therapy holds sensory needs as one of the most important pieces in a session. In order for learning to take place children's sensory needs must be met first. Throughout the session we are always tuned into sensory and regulatory needs and make adjustments to our plans based on the needs of the individual or group. Structure and predictability are also very important for children. We use visual schedules and timers to provide this structure and predictability. These considerations set children up for success and increase their learning and growth.

If you'd like to know more about music therapy please reach out, we'd be happy to answer any questions!

Rhythm and Strings Music Therapy is available for presentations and workshops for your school or organization.

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