Music therapy for kids with special needs works for some Chicago families

Emma Dislers was about 2 when her occupational therapist started encouraging her to crawl, placing her on hands and knees for as long as Emma would tolerate it.

“Her endurance was really low,” says Emma’s mom, April. “Just to get her to last through an entire session was hard on her. It was hard on all of us.”

April wondered whether her daughter, who has global developmental delays and hypertonia, would ever have the strength to move on her own. About that time, Emma’s therapist suggested teaming up with a music therapist.

The change was immediate.

“I’m getting goosebumps even now,” Dislers remembers. “Emma’s in a crawling position, the OT is behind her and the music therapist is there playing on the guitar. She’s singing, ‘come crawl to me.’ And there’s my daughter, moving towards her so she can strum on the guitar.”

Dislers, who lives in Roselle, says she hadn’t heard of using music therapy with children like Emma. “I don’t know that many parents know about it.”

Slowly, though, the field of music therapy is gaining attention. Earlier this year, after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, music therapy was highlighted as a key part of her recovery. The Arizona representative went from mouthing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to belting out “American Pie.”

But as the public learns about the potential benefits of music therapy, they may not know how to find a therapist. It is not easy.

This fall, the Illinois Association for Music Therapy will be asking the state legislature to approve a registry of all licensed music therapists in the state. The registry would make it easier to find someone locally who has the training and national credentials necessary to be called a music therapist.

“As music therapists, we’re not claiming we own music,” explains the association’s government relations chairman Becky Wellman. “It’s just that we have been specially trained to harness music to help clients meet their goals.”

Many who work with people find music a helpful tool, Wellman says, from physical therapists who use songs to encourage movement, to a volunteer who plays the piano in a nursing home occasionally.

The difference is that a music therapy degree requires courses in anatomy, psychology, even neurology, along with music theory and mastery of an instrument. Music therapists must have 1,200 hours of clinical training and sit for the national Certification Board for Music Therapists licensure.

Judy Simpson, with the American Music Therapy Association, says such training allows music therapists to write specific music or lyrics for each client. But more importantly, they are trained to observe how clients respond, emotionally, as well as physically, to the music.

“What’s so unique is that the music therapist can look for those responses and then change-on the spot-not only the approach, but the music as well.” She says potential harm can be done “if the music triggers strong negative emotional reactions that a non-trained person would not know how to deal with.”

Simpson is working with 32 states to implement registries or licensure requirements. Wisconsin created a music therapist registry more than a decade ago. This past spring, North Dakota went further by becoming the first state to require music therapists to hold a state license and face penalties if they don’t.

If the Illinois legislature can establish a registry, it would be an ideal first step to making sure anyone who seeks music therapy receives standardized care, Simpson says. Until then, parents can find trained music therapists online or can search for therapists with the “Mt-Bc” title after their name, which stands for music therapist, board certified.

As for Dislers, she recommends trying music therapy to the parents of any child with special needs who she thinks might benefit. She tells them how Emma responded so positively to rhythm and harmony, and eventually stood for long periods behind tall bongo drums. Even though Emma, 4, is still unable to speak, she will make sounds and babble, always in response to songs.

“I can’t imagine that this would have ever happen if she didn’t have motivation” through music, she says.

Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom living in Chicago.

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