Make Some Noise: Treating Mental Disorders With the Power of Music

For some children on the autistic spectrum, music's clearly defined rules can improve social ability better than any standard treatment.

jaden-615.jpgLesly Weiner

Jaden raced into the room, his bare feet stomping on the carpeted floor. His wavy brown hair flopped around as he made a beeline for the brown piano at the center of the music therapy room at the Rebecca School in Manhattan, a school for children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Jaden is 13, but with his toothy grin, reddened cheeks and flat pudgy nose, he looks eight. As he began to play on the piano, two notes at a time, Jesse Asch, an intern at the school, picked up a guitar and strummed along with him.

For the last four years, Jaden has been attending the school for music therapy - broadly defined as the clinical use of music for treatment of people with mental, physical or emotional issues. Jaden was born without a corpus callosum - the flat bundle of cells that connects the left and right sides of the brain, facilitating communication between the two hemispheres. He has minimal speaking skills, said Dr. Gil Tippy, the Rebecca School's clinical director, but it's made up for by a penchant for music.

The term "music therapy" first appeared in The Columbia Magazine back in 1789, but it wasn't until the 1940s that music therapy began to emerge as a clinical profession when hospitals used music to treat World War II soldiers suffering from shell shock. Using music as a therapeutic medium has been shown to facilitate motivation, communication skills and social interaction, and it improves attention spans among children with autism.

Jaden hasn't been diagnosed with autism, though he exhibits most of the criteria associated with the disorder, said Tippy. While any child on the autism spectrum can benefit from music therapy, the Rebecca School focuses mostly on students like Jaden. "They actually get the toughest kids at the school because they have the most difficulty with speech and language," he said.

Developmental milestones such as walking, talking and reading are typically delayed for children lacking the vital connection between the brain's hemispheres. When Jaden first arrived at the Manhattan-based school, Stacey Hensel, his music therapist, said he would walk around with his back bent and his arms positioned awkwardly by his sides, a trait he has overcome in the last four years.

In his music therapy session, Jaden switched from his piano to a percussion set, moving swiftly between drums and cymbals. Asch accompanied him on the guitar at a languid pace, trying to slow Jaden down. Oblivious to Asch's bluesy guitar tune, the child continued his rapid drum solo.

This is called "regulation," Hensel explained. "We slow down the music when we want him to slow down." It teaches him to respond to outside cues.

Gradually, Jaden fell in sync with Asch. Having abandoned the drumsticks, he positioned his foot on the pedal of the bass drum and watched Asch on the guitar. Jaden pounded once on the drums and waited for a response. When Asch strummed with equal fervor, Jaden pedaled the drum once more. It was the first time during the session that Jaden had responded to a musical idea that wasn't his own, letting someone else step into his world of rhythm and beat.

Presented by

Nikhita Venugopal

Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance reporter in New York City. She recently graduated from the journalism school at Columbia University.

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