Every one of us wants our children to grow and thrive. In encouraging this growth, the key is to focus on strengths and gifts, developing natural talents and giving children positive experiences that encourage them to broaden their comfort zone.
Music Therapy has many proven benefits that make it especially valuable to special needs children. The social and emotional benefits of music therapy are well known.
But new developments in science have allowed for a deeper understanding of the healing effects of music therapy on the brain itself. I have compiled a list of 10 benefits of music therapy for special needs children; I am sure we could come up with even more, but this is start with. If you can think of any other benefits please leave us a comment below!
Special needs children can often use all the help they can get in developing both fine and gross motor coordination. Playing an instrument can teach coordination with both hands, as well as following visual and audio cues, pitch identification and matching tones.
The rhythmic aspect of music is especially good for improving coordination: studies have shown that listening to beloved music can allow people to participate in physical therapy in ways that they would otherwise be unable to do so.
Playing music, and even just singing, are multi-sensory experiences that immerse the child on many levels; touch, sound, sight, and movement. Natan Shai loves music and ‘sings’ his own melody, meaning he makes sounds when he hears music and totally joins in.
Relaxation is another benefit of music, and a relaxed child is more likely to succeed in acquiring new coordination abilities.
When Natan Shai was in the hospital and was very sick a couple of years ago, we put music in his earphones and his Oxygen levels immediately rose!
2. Communicating When Your Child is Non-Verbal or Verbally Challenged
Children who are unable to speak can communicate through the language of music. Emotions and the nuances of inner experience can be expressed through music in ways that can help a non-verbal child transcend the isolation that often comes with this condition.
In addition, new understanding about the plasticity of the brain has shown that individuals who have lost the ability to speak can often communicate through singing, which engages a different part of the brain than just speaking.
The benefit of improved communication especially applies to autistic children, who are sometimes non-verbal or verbally challenged. However, in studies, autistic children who have no musical training have been shown to perform as well or better than more musically experienced, neurotypical children.
And autistic children who have trouble interpreting emotional or social cues are even more affected by listening to emotional music. For kids with limited language abilities, any vocalization is good.
Playing music together is a wonderful way to connect. Even the simplest instruments, such as bells and percussion, can be played along with your child to music that you both enjoy. Especially if you have music training, you can share these skills with your child, exploring new ways to connect.
4. Social Experiences
Differences in appearance, abilities, and verbal, and cognitive abilities may make it hard for your child to have positive social experiences with peers.
Music is a great bridge builder, opening doors for communication and connection that are often closed to special needs kids. When children play music together with therapists or other children, it can help them to build relationships, promote well-being, express feelings, and interact socially.
Learning new skills, acquiring a new song, learning to coordinate body and mind; investing time and effort and seeing improvement; all of these can increase your child’s sense of self-esteem.
And if your child has a natural musical ability, the benefits of developing a musical skill to build a healthy sense of her own value and abilities just increase.
Music encourages self-expression, which is another way to improve self-esteem: a child that can express her creativity and contribution is more likely to see herself as a unique person with innate value.
6. Mood Improvement
Nothing can change our mood faster and more effectively than a song. The right song can cause an instant improvement in mood, from down and listless to those precious smiles of joy we all hope for.
Try it yourself: think of a song you like, and then put it on…you will see immediate results. Special needs children (like their parents) are dealing with a lot. Your child can use a pick me up every so often, and music is one of the best.
A familiar song can also provide comfort in a world that often seems overstimulating, challenging, and sometimes, frightening.
Active learning and training in music can change brain structure, rewiring the brain to adapt itself to different tasks and abilities. Music tends to activate the brain bilaterally, which means that both hemispheres are working simultaneously.
And for injuries to one side of the brain, music may help the brain to train or relearn functions on the other side. Rehabilitation from aphasia is a good example because singing activates the left side of the brain, which can bypass injured speech centres in the right hemisphere.
Thus, one area of the brain can adapt and take over tasks from another damaged or non-functioning area. There is also an attention network on both sides of the brain which is activated by music, improving focus and concentration.
Studies have shown that learning word lists in a song activate temporal and frontal brain areas on both sides of the brain, while spoken-word learning activates only areas in the left hemisphere. In addition, rhythmic patterns and tone recognition help with logic and organization.
8. Healing and Rewiring the Brain
The most exciting new developments in research involve new brain imaging and electrical recording techniques that have led to discoveries about the brain’s plasticity, or ability to change, by creating new pathways and connections between its parts.
For example, in hydranencephaly, brain function of some missing areas such as the emotional centre of the cortex is transferred to the remaining parts of the brain. (One look at the shining smile of my son Natan Shai is enough to prove that his emotional responses are alive and well.) The parts of the brain involved in music are also key in processing language and sounds, attention, memory, and motor control.
9. Post Trauma
Especially if you care for an adopted or a foster child, or a child who has undergone extensive or painful medical treatments, you may be dealing with the after-effects of trauma.
Sometimes, trauma causes children to go deep within themselves, causing isolation from others or an inability to express their emotions or share their experience directly.
Music therapy can bypass these self-protective mechanisms, allowing your child to express emotions and memories that may be hidden deep inside. The spontaneity and joy of music create inner connection and a feeling of safety that can help a child test the waters outside of her comfort zone while letting others in.
Making music is called playing because it’s fun! And children tend to love fun. Even the simplest instruments can provide a way for a child to feel part of the music. Music and joy are closely connected.
Music can help children harness their natural joy in a way that also teaches coordination and a sense of accomplishment. Even just listening to music releases dopamine, a hormone that is pleasurable and improves brain function.
So, if you are on a limited budget, or just too overwhelmed to imagine another after-school activity, just buy some bells, tambourines, or simple percussion instruments.
Put on some music, pass out the instruments, and create your own jam session. With all the love and effort involved in caring for a special needs child, you deserve it! And everyone’s brain will be the better for it. Not to mention the hearts.