Making music helps kids with autism connect with others

Zachary Cottell, 4, responds to a musical prompt, or rhythm seed, by drumming with purple plastic tubes (boom whackers) at an interactive concert for people affected by autism. The concert was part of a two-day autism awareness event hosted by Upstate’s Margaret L. Williams Developmental Evaluation Center.

Zachary Cottell, 4, responds to a musical prompt, or rhythm seed, by drumming with purple plastic tubes (boom whackers) at an interactive concert for people affected by autism. The concert was part of a two-day autism awareness event hosted by Upstate’s Margaret L. Williams Developmental Evaluation Center.

Zachary Cottell, 4, often wears earphones to muffle outside noise, which can be agitating and disruptive for children on the autism spectrum. But on a recent Friday night, Zachary put down his earphones, picked up plastic noise makers (boom whackers) and joined 150 people in an interactive drumming performance led by Jim Donovan, founding member of the band, Rusted Root.

Donovan uses a variety of percussion instruments and simple sounds and phrases — which he calls rhythm seeds — to inspire groups of people to make music together.

The Friday night crowd — comprised of lots of children, many with autism; their families; caregivers and teachers — responded to Donovan’s rhythm seeds by stomping their feet, whooping and hollering phrases like “I like ice cream.” One teenager ran onto the stage, dancing and waving his arms over his head.

Drummer Jim Donovan inspires a crowd to make music together by asking them to tap “boom whackers” together and to join in singing rhythmic phrases in a call-and-response style.

Drummer Jim Donovan inspires a crowd to make music together by asking them to tap “boom whackers” together and to join in singing rhythmic phrases in a call-and-response style.

The resulting concert looks and sounds like a raucous party. From the stage, Donovan and other musicians see people smiling and interacting. At concerts like this, “Everyone’s welcome to be themselves,” explains Donovan. For anyone affected by autism, he says, “Making music together helps communicate that ‘the way you are is exactly fine.’”

These interactive concerts, which may seem raucous, are the result of a carefully constructed process that bonds groups of people ranging from corporate executives to college students.

For children with autism, these interactive drumming sessions help develop social connections, reduce stress, and increase their ability to focus.

Upstate’s Carroll Grant, PhD, who organized the event, confirms that responsive sounds and movements can help people with autism, who often have deficits in their ability to make social connections.

“I realized, early in my career, that I could better connect with a child on the spectrum if I could connect rhythmically,” she told the concert-goers. “If a child is tapping on the desk, I tap on the desk; if he is rocking and clapping, I rock and clap. It helps us connect, to socially engage.”

A recent study of interactive drumming sessions focused on 41 children with autism, ages 3 to 13. When they participated in these music-making sessions, the children showed a 189 percent increase in the amount of time that they could focus their attention on a task, according to the research conducted by Saint Francis University, where Donovan is chairman of fine arts.

Today, one in 68 children is affected by autism. The message of the Margaret L. Williams Developmental Evaluation Center is: “Be aware. Be understanding.”

The concert, held at Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church in DeWitt, also included Syracuse University’s Brazilian Ensemble, the Liverpool Arts Center, syraDrum and Open Hand Theater. It was followed by a day –long workshop attended by 60 teachers, parents and other caregivers.

The next interactive drumming workshop, conducted by Jim Donovan, will be held at the Liverpool Art Center on October 22.

For more information on the value of interactive concerts like this one, download the manual, “Drumming and Disabilities: Improve Quality of Life for People with Disabilities through Rhythm.”

Upstate’s Margaret L. Williams Development Evaluation offers an interactive puppet workshop, Kid Speak, for schools and other community settings that serve young children.

 

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About susankeeter

Occasional contributor Upstate’s Susan Keeter has written about and painted Upstate’s Dr. Sarah Loguen, one of the first African American women physicians. Keeter created the horse sculpture in front of the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and illustrated a children’s book on autism, “Waiting for Benjamin.” She’s written for Physician Practice, Upstate Alumni Journal, Cancer Care and Upstate Health magazines. Reach her by email at keeters@upstate.edu or by phone at 315-464-4834.
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