Harry is a 6 year old boy with severe autism. He is non-verbal but has developed some communicative behaviours such as vocalising or leading by the hand. He is very physically hyperactive, constantly needing bodily contact with objects and furniture and he achieves this by mouthing objects and clambering over furniture or people.
At the start of our sessions Harry moved quickly from one instrument to another, mouthing them and ignoring me. I did not try and direct him or persuade him to do anything; I simply responded to his sounds and actions, reflecting them back with my voice and instruments, and giving Harry a strong rhythm to contain his hyperactivity. Gradually Harry realised that his sounds were being repeated, and he smiled and laughed when they were reflected back. He would occasionally enter into a turn-taking exchange with his vocalisations, and on several occasions he would bang the drum and leave a gap for me to respond, leading to a short 'conversation' in sound. At the end of music therapy sessions Harry was usually a lot calmer and more able to focus his attention on an activity and on the person he was sharing the experience with. Communicative behaviours within the sessions (such as making eye contact, smiling and initiating physical contact) more than doubled by the end of the 6 week assessment period.
Gemma is a 37 year old lady with profound and multiple learning and physical disabilities. She finds it very difficult to interact with people, and has very limited means to express herself, being non-verbal and extremely limited in movement. She often self-stimulates by rocking her head from side to side. In Gemma’s first music therapy session I used my violin to reflect the rhythm and feel of Gemma’s head-rocking. Gemma’s eyes widened and she appeared to be listening. I then noticed Gemma blinking in a regular rhythm and started plucking the strings in time with this, stopping when she stopped and following her blinks exactly. Gemma became more and more animated, vocalising and laughing, particularly in the gaps where I stopped and waited for her to make the next move. It was a rare moment of connection and interaction which opened up new ways of relating to Gemma; insights which could then be passed on to her support workers.
Michael is a 14 year old boy who has a diagnosis of high-functioning autism and has struggled with relationships all of his life; he has frequently been suspended from school for aggressive and violent behaviour and this eventually led to his admission to a pupil referral unit, where I first met him.
Michael was initially very hesitant, but gradually he grew to trust and open up in sessions. We would usually start by chatting about something that had happened to him during the week. We would then choose a title for our musical improvisation; usually this would be based somehow on his experiences, thoughts or feelings. Then we would play. His playing was usually quite cut off from me; he didn't seem to respond to what I was playing with him, and he didn't put a lot of emotion into his playing. This was perhaps characteristic of the isolation he was experiencing in his relationships elsewhere. He usually played 'big' instruments such as the gong or the drums, saying - in his own words - that the smaller instruments weren't strong enough. But even these instruments he played hesitantly. Perhaps so much feeling had built up over the years that he felt that nothing (or no-one perhaps) could hold up to its intensity.
After playing music for a while we would then talk about it - describing how it sounded and the feelings it evoked. He would ofen be surprised when I recognised a particular quality of feeling in his music. At one point I described how his music had a 'yearning for more' quality to it and I wondered aloud if this reflected how he longed for something in his relationships but didn't know quite what that 'something' was. He nodded. Gradually he began to talk much more about those feelings and how he was trying to meet his need for connection and attention in destructive ways. This was the first step in a long process of learning to understand and process his feelings in a more healthy way. At the end of our sessions together he said 'I can really see how this music therapy can work'.
Names have been changed to protect confidentiallty.
Please see my for some video clips of sessions