Music Therapy: A Major Piece of Our Puzzle at Giant Steps

by Lindsey Nichols

Lindsey Nichols Lindsey Nichols

People often ask me to describe Giant Steps. I simply respond that Giant Steps is “one-of-a-kind.” Giant Steps is an innovative educational and therapeutic school for individuals living with autism. We take pride in offering specialized programming to enrich the daily lives of each student and each participant living with autism. We have different programs so that we are able to meet the needs of individuals of all ages. We are going to focus in this blog on what we are doing in our therapeutic day school, although the concepts are able to be used with any age. When I first introduced Dr. Heipp of School Health to our programs, he was impressed with everything. Yet, the one thing which stood out the most to him was what we were doing in Music Therapy. When he came to visit, I thought we were going to have to take him to a calming room, as he got so excited about our approach.

Ms. Meredith Powers, who is a Board Certified Music Therapist, leads our Music Therapy program here at Giant Steps. She has been a part of the Giant Steps’ team since 2003. Her experience and background knowledge has allowed this program to reach so many individuals and begin to assist them in self-regulation and approaches to daily activities. Ms. Meredith takes much of her approach from the research of Dr. Michael Thaut as it applies to Neurologic Music Therapy. Dr. Thaut’s research career has been focused on the neurological basis of music and rhythm perception and clinical application of music and rhythm to motor, speech/language, and cognitive training in neurologic disorders. To those of us on the outside, this sounds impressive. However, to our individuals who are using it as part of their daily routines, this information creates a way of approaching life that might not have been available using any other therapy.

We do not necessarily know or perhaps realize how slow or fast our bodies move in relation to sound or music. As Ms. Meredith explained to Dr. Heipp and me, a neurotypical individual physically moves to 100 beats of sound per minute. However, an individual on the autism spectrum responds to 140-180 beats per minute. So, we often make the mistake of assuming that if we slow things down when explaining, transitioning, or de-escalating, it will work with those individuals. Ironically, slowing down may not work because we are not aligning our expectations with their internal physical needs. By introducing music into various points of the day and doing it on a consistent basis at identifiable times, our individuals are able to approach their activities in a calm and directed fashion. One way of establishing this and being most effective is to use a metronome, thus, getting the body ready for anything.

So how is all of this used? As we start the day, we will have individuals skip the traditional idea of circle time and instead, sit on an exercise ball. While on the exercise ball, we will play music while activating the various muscle groups throughout the body, better preparing all of the individuals for the context of their day. We also use music and rhythms to introduce activities. Hence, when that music is played, the individuals become more physically and emotionally prepared for the specific activity. We have also seen how the introduction of music within the lives of these individuals does many things as Dr. Thaut’s research would suggest including language acquisition.

Dr. Heipp also loved the activity where we actually had Ms. Meredith leading individuals down the hallway to their next class. They were so used to the music that the transition was smooth and there were no instances of loss of focus on the walk. He commented that it was almost like watching a top-notch marching band performing a routine as everyone was in step with the beat and knew exactly what they needed to do, responding in a seemingly subconscious manner.

In March, Giant Steps had our very first Music Therapy Showcase that our individuals put on for their families. It was a wonderful program that was set up a little differently than the music programs at other schools. We alerted the parents and friends to the skill(s) each individual was working on instead of having the audience focus on the product of the music. So, the audience cheered for the skill(s) the individuals used, not the music. This was a great way to reinforce those skill(s) and help those on the outside understand the true accomplishments of the individuals. I have included a link to our page which will take you to the video of our Showcase.  https://youtu.be/brjpgdglOj0

As I mentioned at the beginning, Giant Steps is a “one-of-a-kind” place and I invite you all to stop by for a tour or request more information. I know that Dr. Heipp has already begun incorporating some of the ideas on Neurologic Music Therapy into his presentations based on his interactions with Ms. Meredith and his review of Dr. Thaut’s work. I have simply focused on the Music Therapy side of what we do here, but we have other programs and therapies, a major one being, Equine Therapy, which is beneficial for our individuals on the autism spectrum as well as anyone! I am happy to share information about what we do and encourage you to see that we should always assume competence for all of our individuals with “differing abilities” as Dr. Heipp would say.  I look forward to speaking with you and can be reached at lnichols@mygiantsteps.org.

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