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27 October 2015
Musical conversations - music therapy and autism

Musical Conversations - music therapy and autism 

Shlomi Hason

Shlomi Hason trained as a music therapist at Roehampton University and worked in various clinical areas, which have included roles at The Wolfson Neurorehabilitation Centre, and Whitefield Academy for children with special needs. In recent years, he has has pioneered work with orthodox Jewish families from Stamford Hill, North London. He has a growing interest in working with adolescents and teenagers from traumatic backgrounds. Shlomi also provides a private practice service at Inner Echo Music

We asked Shlomi about his work and particularly about music therapy with the young boy who you can see in the video. 

How do you see music therapy making a difference for this young boy? What impact has music therapy had on his life? 

Eitan has been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and as a result is finding it difficult to take part in everyday social situations including making friends, and being part of a school environment. Eitan may become aggressive when faced with new situations and music therapy provides a safe space for him to explore his feelings through sounds, and enables him to learn about himself through a meaningful relationship with the music and the therapist. Although Eitan's verbal language is severely delayed, he understands music and responds appropriately to my musical gestures. He also appears to feel at ease when entering 'musical conversations' with me. We often dance and laugh as you can see in the video. Sometimes the mood changes and Eitan appears to be more reflective as in the second part of the video. It is moving to listen to his harp music when he strokes the strings so gently. Eitan has stepped into his formative years of adolescence, leading to monumental changes of his developing body and brain. The flexibility of rhythms, melody and harmony help Eitan to cope with these changes by meeting his frustrations, anxieties and a wide range of other feelings. Music therapy has become part of Eitan's identity as acknowledged by staff and his family. 

Music therapists often work within a team. Who do you work with in this setting and why does working with them make a difference to the impact music therapy can have?

In our school environment, I often meet with the head teacher who thoroughly knows the children, their backgrounds, and their needs. His previous experience with arts therapies, and seeing the necessity of them for the children, creates a positive attitude and acceptance of music therapy around school. Teachers and learning assistants often express their curiosity towards the 'emotional' child in music therapy. In response, I offer regular feedback, guidance, and will share recorded excerpts, similar to this video, from the sessions. In this way, the steps which the child makes in therapy reach the awareness of those professionals around the child, and allow for greater integration of the developments from therapy into the classroom and other settings. I discover that colleagues have many insights to share when they are given time to reflect about their pupils. Sharing between music therapy and professionals turns into a symbiotic learning which enhances the child's develop in therapy and other settings. 

How does attending music therapy sessions at school support children to better access learning in the classroom? 

Irrespective of their diagnosis, almost every child I see in therapy has unmet emotional needs which may lead to social and academic difficulties, which can be further exacerbated by challenging behaviours. In order to learn a new set of skills, the pupil needs to feel safe, calm, and confident in their relationships with others. In a recent report produced by our educational psychologist, staff reported the children are 'being generally calmer or at least calmed after their session (music therapy)...engaging more in the classroom...being better at listening...showing more awareness or taking more interest in what is going on around them'. Music played in therapy can have a cathartic effect. Whether it is a disturbing bash of a drum or a mellow vocal tune, the child has an experience of bringing and sharing an urging feeling. They have an opportunity to feel emotionally acknowledged by the instruments, the sounds, and the therapist. This experience is based on the establishment of trust and learning to know oneself in relation to another person. These principles are key prerequisites to learning, and often develop in a music therapy environment. 

What do you feel are important considerations for music therapists to be thinking about when they begin work in educational settings? 

There are many aspects to consider when working in education. A prominent one is negotiating a realistic caseload which allows room for reflection, processing each session, and to leave time for communicating with staff and families. It is a necessity to have the head teacher and staff on board, as they help to protect and to nurture the therapeutic space. I find that group sessions are a great opportunity to answer the need of staff to have a first-hand experience of music therapy while developing their therapeutic understanding of the child. It takes much fewer words to 'convince' a person who attends a music therapy session or listens to an audio / watches a video extract. Colleagues and families respond well to such meetings and share important information with the therapist, leading in turn to further developments in therapy. 

We would like to thank Eitan and Shlomi for sharing their music therapy experiences.