How Music Lessons Helped My Child With Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

How Music Lessons Helped My Child With Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder

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The story of how one child with special needs went from fearing music to celebrating it.
 

As a former music teacher, I pride myself on all of the musical ways my children learn in our household. We have mastered the continents, days of the week, months of the year, and even our phone number and address through songs (my kids still can’t say their phone number without singing it).

My oldest son, James, was born with a chromosome defect and multiple disabilities, among them autism and sensory processing disorder. Needless to say, his sensory issues and my knack for singing loudly in the car or playing Christmas carols on the piano at home didn’t make for a peaceful household.

Instead of me passing on my love for music, we stopped attending concerts and started avoiding birthday parties just to circumvent the pre-song anxiety and the post-song meltdown. At school, I was called in more than once after James had become overwhelmed by a choir concert or classmate’s birthday. It reached a point where it became a given that if his class was performing in an assembly, James would stay back in the classroom. Even movie soundtracks or church hymns were enough to make him put a blanket over his head and start crying.

Time for Drastic Measures

As a musician, this music-phobia was particularly upsetting. When James turned 7 we moved to Manhattan. New York City was chock-full of special needs everything, integrated classrooms, sports teams…and as I would soon discover, music classes. After being called several times to pick James up early due to birthday songs, fire alarms, and choir assemblies at school, I decided it was time for drastic measures. With minimal searching online I found Daniel’s Music Foundation, which provided music classes to children and adults with disabilities.

When I contacted DMF we were asked to come in for an interview, after which James was formally invited to join in on a drumming and percussion class as well as a recreational music and movement session. Incredibly, James seemed at ease both during the interview and the initial classes, in which he was able to participate as much or as little as he felt comfortable. The volunteers were helpful and friendly, and the other students were eager while not without their own struggles, which seemed to comfort James. It was as if he knew that music was being explored and shared in a safe space, which made the exposure to it less frightening.

It wasn’t until several weeks later, when James made it through his first classmate’s birthday without tears, that I realized something incredible was happening. Later that month, he did not hesitate when we broached the topic about participating in a performance.

“Do you want to sing with your class? Up on a stage in front of a crowd?” I asked.

“Sure, why not? Everyone in my class will be there," he reasoned.

But even considering this amazing progress, it was with no small amount of anxiety that I headed to his first winter concert at the end of the semester. 

james and daniel trust daniels music foundation
James (left) and Daniel Trush, Co-Founder of DMF (right) during British Invasion week.
 

Taking the Stage

The auditorium was packed and the audience was very enthusiastic throughout the show. As James walked onto the stage for the last number, people began to cheer and clap along and I could see him starting to lose his composure. I felt a thrill of dread in my stomach—what had I been thinking putting James up on stage when he couldn’t even sit through his own birthday cake?

As I watched James grow more and more agitated and began formulating his escape route, a young man hopped up onto the stage next to James and whispered something into his ear. It was Michael Trush, one of DMF’s founders. Within moments he and James were high-fiving and the song reached its conclusion, with Michael and James still standing together. James stood on stage wearing a nervous, but triumphant smile.

That miraculous moment occurred eight years ago. I want to make the story more interesting and say it was a long road with detours and U-turns, with setbacks and trials, but it was nothing so dramatic. It was more like finally finding the right exit off of the highway and smooth sailing to our destination from that point on. Many semesters later, James has performed on stage with DMF nearly a dozen times, including with the New York Yankees during HOPE Week and on the field at a Brooklyn Cyclones game. He sings hymns loudly at church and “Happy Birthday” to his siblings. There is a continuous stream of Michael Jackson and John Williams blasting out of his room, and I still can’t help but smile when I ask him to turn it down a little.
 

Main image: James (center) on stage during a Daniel's Music Foundation concert.
Michaela Searfoorce


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