Sometimes kids need a little nudge, and then sometimes they just need to let go and have fun – that’s when it all comes together!
These recent weeks I have seen, or heard about, unusual behaviors from two of my autistic clients. Apparently, once again demonstrating the quote “All behavior is communication.” Both children, a four year old little girls and a seven year old boy were both non-verbal previous to Music Therapy. Both children have been working on expanding their language. The little girl is self motivated, she loves to keep trying until she gets the word, then tries it again. Every week she comes in the music therapy room and heads straight for the books which we have put to song. She doesn’t stop until I have to end the session.
The little boy has words and is quite content not using them or asking and answering in one word phrases. We have been working on putting together 2-3 word phrases. I use the music and visuals to keep the boy motivated, attentive and moving forward. He is not self-motivated but leans on the pull from the music. Both children worked from September up until December intensely. The boy started, in mid November, some harmless behaviors; behaviors that suggested to me that he was trying to get out of work. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so we loosened the structure and went to purely improvising instrumentally together for a while. I noticed he had some real sensory impulses to release. He played responsively with me for the full 30 minute session. He not only played responsively but tried to stay ahead of me. He was completely aware, responsive, happy, energetic and in the moment.
The little girl came back to school after Christmas break and was speaking wonderfully. Soon after it was reported to me that this eager, compliant child was becoming aggressive towards her teachers, hitting and pushing them.
In Music Therapy she was happy as usual. This day she was doing terrific answering questions then all of the sudden could not get the words out and automatically went back to where we began by tapping out words on the drum. She then put her books away and just wanted to play music. Although she enjoys Music Therapy, she gave me a hard time about ending the session for the first time ever.
As I have said in previous blogs, progress isn’t a straight arrow forward, sometimes we need to level off and rest before proceeding. Sometimes we need a conscious, relaxing distraction to allow newly learned skills to slip into the automatic mode of the subconscious.
My advice to the little girls teacher was to encourage tapping words,(even if the staff did not understand what she wanted) My guess was that when she was getting upset, she knew what she wanted to say but could not express it and now was getting frustrated. (I find this often happens when non-verbal kids acquire some language and have command of what they do have, but they just do not have enough to convey all they want to express.)
The little girls predicament is very recent, however I have been able to witness the results of the little boys. Firstly, besides so much work in Music Therapy on language, he is also in first grade in a public school. Some of his time is spent in an autistic support classroom and some of his time is spent in regular education classes. Now that he is out of kindergarten, he is given very little time, if at all for sensory breaks. He had demonstrated at those first improvisational sessions, that he still has sensory needs to address. He beat the drum with emotional force as if a release of emotion , sensory impulse or of a muscular nature. Secondly, as we stayed with the purely improvisational sessions, this boy played with pure joy, excitement, energy (something not often seen) and co-responsiveness. He was fully aware and perceptive of what the therapist was or was not doing at all times. When I would become so interested in watching him, I would forget to sing. He would look to me and wait for me to start again before looking away. The three word phrases he was using only in Music Therapy and at home (comfortable places) were now being released anywhere, anytime, “wait a minute,” “That’s a big one,” “I want the trumpet.” These kind of phrases never came out with such ease before.
This little boy now has new areas needing lots of work, but is in much more control of his actions. His speech comes out with fluency and ease. He loves improvising and being the one leading the music now instead of the one being gently pulled by it. The boy who was passive and sublime is now demonstrating more typical behaviors for his age, testing limits with silly behavior. Now we spend 20 minutes letting him lead the musical conversation and the last 10 minutes we spend helping him to understand exactly what is being asked in a question. (This boy understands the question “What is it?” He can answer “It’s a yellow bear.” He now has difficulty understanding what is being asked when there are 4 sets of different colored counting bears and the question is “How many yellow bears are there. ” His answer: “Bears.”Having these two children begin to act out at about the same time after fairly intensive work brought about my reoccurring quote; “All behavior is communication.” What was being communicated? A need to relax the situation a bit, to have fun and give the brain a chance to stop concentrating so hard, allow play to happen.
I truly do not believe this is exclusive to autistic children but applies to nuero-typical children also. One more example is that of my own son, who is now a freshman electrical engineering college student. Elementary school was somewhat of a struggle. Organization was not something this boy was blessed with and therefore needed close supervision and very clear, reinforced boundaries. It was typical for my son’s grades to drop at the end of the school year. I remember in fourth grade specifically, going over math before a test. He did great, no problem but failed the test. I talked to the teacher who agreed with me that my son knew and understood the material. He demonstrated the knowledge of the material in class and on his homework. She re-tested the whole class and he did even worse than before. Our conclusion was to leave it alone. He had done all that he could and understood the information. His brain had come to it’s limits, it needed a rest. Without strict structure, my son’s disorganized manner took over and could easily get him lost academically. But he could only do this for so long. Long story short, the end result is an excellent college student, mostly on scholarships with an intense schedule. He enjoys the work he has chosen and is my model for balancing work and play. He is a young man who jokes a lot, very rarely demonstrates anxiety, works hard at any area that shows weakness and can usually get anyone around him to enjoy themselves. (I have a lot to learn from him besides computer skills.)
In sports, in musical training, there has always been exercises done which involve tension and relaxation, it helps build skill and control. A person needs both to be in balance. When walking up that steep hill of growth, we don’t start out and go straight up. After all, growth is never done until life is. We have to walk to the plateaus and rest or play before we begin the journey again.
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