4 Steps in Turning Repetitive Behaviors into Functional/Playful Learning

It is part of who we all are – we need to play and have fun. Can even laborious tasks be turned into something not only useful, but healthy and enjoyable? Take a look at this study;

Play can change our perspective, give life a structure we want to do.  Each individual is different. Each individual client communicates through his or her own behavior how they learn, what his/her strengths are, what his/her needs are moment to moment as a clue for YOU, therapist, teacher or parent on how to meet that .

The best part is that it requires very little from you other than careful attention and the ability to use your voice. Like child’s play, you can even begin the process before you figure out the answer to the what/how questions mentioned above. Here are the 4 steps;

1) Watch and Listen with full attention to your child.

2) Acknowledge their need, strength, worth by matching their actions through song.

3) Name these actions simply in a known tune.

4) Validate them by repeating as often as needed. Fine tune with minor adjustments according to your child’s lead.

If you just read this and are thinking,”but I’m not a musician, or a good enough singer, get over yourself. Is it your goal to be a musician? Is it your goal to perform perfectly? Or is it your goal to give your child a happy, trust filled ability to learn, function, communicate or just simply know who your  child is beyond the autistic symptoms? Let me translate these steps through example.

Step#1; Watch and Listen with full attention.

One year I worked with a little boy who, if not directly engaged,  would spend all his time in front of a mirror watching himself clap his hands.  When he came to Music Therapy, besides hand clapping he could really beat on my drums. There were no musical happenings with this, just some major sensory stimulation going on.

Step #2; Acknowledge the child’s need, strength and worth by matching their actions through song; I phrased my piano music to a 2-3 measure tune corresponding with his clapping. On each clap I hit an accented chord and set the music up to lead to this. This gave his random clapping and his sensory experience timing, predictability and more sensory experience with structure. It gave phrasing to his clapping, so that there was a beginning and an ending and the opportunity to  anticipate what comes next with success.

Step #3 Name these actions in a simple tune; I sang, while I played, what this little boy was doing. This caught this little boys attention (Normally he was only attentive to his sensory experience).  His  sensory experience was now joined, not done in isolation, and  given structure and language. The little boy then began to become vocal himself. Structure was given to the hand clapping by using hand tapping and pairing it with the children’ s names in his classroom. Up to this point he had demonstrated no notice of the children, but maybe that was because there was no pathway to do so. He now demonstrated an eager interest in knowing the children’ s names, next being able to tap them back to me and finally and eager interest in attempting to say their names. His original random, isolating, all consuming clapping now became a bridge to communication. His original, non-musical, forceful response to the music; beating a drum  with all his might, was given structure through the use of a short repeated tune. This pulled him in to be attentive to the musical elements of timing, pitch and dynamics in a way he was unaware of but helped him to become aware of a broader here and now  which included me, eventually others and an interest in taking a step to know others. This boy now played music with me , being sensitive and playing music with me instead of parallel to me.

How can you do this in your environment? The great news is you don’t need to be a musician, have a great voice or even be amazingly creative. If you are still reading this you have an eager interest in your child or the child you work with. All you need to do is to watch their behaviors with that same interest, and sing about their actions to a simple tune you  that you can easily repeat.  (you can use simple children’s tunes such as the ABC’s, twinkle, twinkle, a Beach Boys melody; Barbara Ann or anything you can easily remember and repeat). Try to match your singing to their actions. The rest between their movements can be the end of a phrase of  your singing.

This will help give your child a sense of; validity, identity, a sense of time, here and now, predictability, beginnings and endings. Do not worry about what comes next, just watch your child and stay in tune to what they are doing so well that as they vary a movement (even a hiccup) you mirror back through sound (and facial expression) what they are doing.

Soon their obsolete behavior takes on some meaning and can be broadened into a functional one.  “All behavior is communication,” this is their strength already – use it! They are showing what they already have, how they learn and what they need. Do not try to delete what already is demonstrated, use it and broaden it. Use lemons and make lemonade. Make it sweet, fun and playful – not work. The video at the beginning shows us, any task, even the tough ones, that are taken on with lightheartedness and fun can be made into easier, preferred behavior.  Have patience and child – like curiosity. Keep your eyes on even the smallest variation; a change in eye-glance, breathing, a slight alteration in movement, because this is telling you something. This is movement in a direction, not stagnation. Even if you can not interpret the change, you have accomplished what you set out to do, you have altered the  stagnation.

Every individual, autistic or neuro-typical, has abilities and strengths. When we have labeled something otherwise –  we have identified something about ourselves and projected it elsewhere.


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