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Hitting the Right Notes, Music Therapy and Autism

Music Therapy for children on the autism spectrum is becoming more and more popular.  Owner of Dynamic Lynks,  Alyssa Wilkins, MT/ BC (Music Therapist/Board Certified)  shared information with BY YOUR SIDE on advantages of Music Therapy and how it helps children on the spectrum.  In this interview, BYS asked Alyssa several questions to understand this holistic type of therapy, and how it can work in collaboration with the excellent offerings at BY YOUR SIDE! Can you tell us exactly what music therapy is, and what it does for children on the autism spectrum? Music Therapy is the use of music as a therapeutic medium to create  positive changes in functional behavior. Much like a speech therapist might use a flash card game or book to target specific speech and language skills, music therapists might use instrument playing or singing to target specific functional skills. The beauty of music therapy is that it targets many clinical domains, all through fun music making! In my sessions, I work on cognitive skills, sensory regulation, communication skills, emotional expression, motor/physical skills and social skills. It sounds like a lot of hard work, but my kiddos are just having a blast jamming out to different songs or creating their own original music! I studied Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) at the University of Miami and that is the style of music therapy I use in my sessions. I find that NMT is an extremely beneficial medium for children on the Autism spectrum. NMT studies how disorders, disease and trauma affect the brain, as well as how music affects the brain, and uses that scientific research to develop music therapy interventions to repair, rebuild and develop specific neural pathways in the brain. Because autism is a neurodevelopmental disability, NMT can target specific brain areas most in need to help children reach their fullest potential! What does a typical session look like? I do both one on one and group music therapy sessions at my center. A music therapy session can look very different for each child I work with, depending on the goals and objectives I am targeting. I generally start my sessions with a hello song to work on social greetings as well as welcome each child. I then do a sensorimotor activity with scarves or ribbons to target motor skills and sensory regulation. After some movement to warm-up the brain, we start our instrument play. On the outside, this looks like all fun and games, but we can target many skills through various instrument play. I have drum songs to work on crossing midline and bilateral hand coordination. I have egg shaker songs to work on inhibition and sustaining motor movements. We play harmonicas and kazoos to work on oral motor and respiratory skills. The list goes on and on. Depending on what goal area I am targeting for that child, instrument play activities will vary by session. After rocking out on some instruments, I usually do some type of dance activity. This can again be for sensory regulation or can be targeting a specific motor skill such as increasing range of motion in the upper extremities. I also use dance to work on cognitive skills such as following one, two and three-step directions. After dancing we might do a singing activity with visuals or with a book. This is often to target speech and language skills such as phonation or articulation. Singing activities can also be a great time to work on cognitive skills such as attention, auditory processing or visual tracking. I always end my sessions with either a relaxation activity or goodbye song to help regulate the child and prepare them for the transition to their next activity. My sessions are either 30 minutes or 45 minutes, depending on the child’s age and level ability. I mostly see clients once a week, but just like with any therapy; the more consistent, the better the progress. How can music therapy be used in conjunction with other types of therapy such as ABA, Speech or OT to help kids? I have done co-treats with speech and OT when I worked at a therapeutic day school. Music Therapy in conjunction with other therapies is excellent. We can use each other’s skills and areas of expertise to create some incredible interventions to help the child be most successful. Because I work on such a wide variety of clinical domains, music therapy pairs nicely with nearly every type of therapy that is common in the Autism world. When I co-treat with an OT, I create specific musical accompaniment to facilitate the skill the OT is working on. I have created shoe-tying songs for OT co-treats. I have also created simple, rhythmic background melodies to play while an OT brushes a child or rocks them on a swing. Research shows that sensory input stays in the body for a longer duration when paired with a steady rhythmic beat. For speech co-treats, I have created songs to target the specific skills the speech therapist is working on in that session. Our speaking language is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, but melody is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain. If a child is having a difficult time with language, accessing a different part of the brain through singing can help facilitate speech. Because speech and singing are processed the same way in the body, singing can work on developing the mechanics of speech such as respiration, phonation, resonance, articulation and fluency. I have not done many co-treats with ABA therapists, but music therapy sessions are a great time to use behavioral reinforcements and behavior charts. Can you share some improvements or changes you have seen in kids, since starting music therapy with you? One kiddo I have been working with since August has shown a huge improvement in her ability to sustain attention and remain on-task. Her meaningful use of language has increased, her ability to follow one-step directions has improved and we are finding new strategies to help her regulate during times of distress. The areas of improvement I see the most in the children I work with are in the areas of communication, auditory processing and attention. Because music therapy sessions are so engaging, I am able to have children who typically don’t sit for more than 30 seconds participate fully in a session for 30 minutes. Using singing interventions paired with motivating visuals and instruments, I have heard kids vocalize their first full sentence with clear articulation and fluency. As any parent or professional in the Autism world knows, it is often the small victories that really add up. One of my newest clients comes in, hangs his coat on the coat rack and sits on his blue dot to begin playing our hello song on the drum, with no prompting. To me, that is a huge victory from where we started! What is the most rewarding part about working with the kids at your center? The most rewarding part about working with the kids at my center is giving them a safe place to express their unique selves and help them reach their fullest potential. Dynamic Lynks is a place where children and parents can be who they are without fear of judgment or isolation. I wanted to create a space that is completely stress-free so both parent and child can fully enjoy the therapeutic experience. Seeing the joy on their faces when they enter the space and begin the session makes every aspect of my job worthwhile! About Alyssa Wilkins MT-BC – Owner & Founder of Dynamic Lynks Alyssa is a passionate Autism provider, Board Certified Music Therapist, music educator and adaptive yoga instructor. Her holistic approach, engaging expertise and determined drive have lead to the reality of her life-long goal, opening a  therapeutic center for children with Autism. A graduate of the University of Miami, Alyssa studied Music Therapy, Music Education, and Psychology.  Alyssa’s passion lies in early intervention for children with Autism and providing the best therapeutic services possible to help these children reach their fullest potential!
Alyssa Wilkins MT-BC - Owner & Founder of Dynamic Links

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