RONNIE KOENIG

As a mom of an 11-year-old girl on the autism spectrum, I noticed early on that my daughter E had a strong connection to all types of music. Whether it was a kiddie song she heard in preschool or a rock song we played for her in the car or just hanging around the house, she would hear a tune once and immediately commit it to memory. While it was incredibly difficult to tease words and later sentences out of her, melodies flowed from her with ease and her clearest voice can be heard when she is singing.

I marveled at my girl’s capacity to engage with music but was at a loss on how to use this ability to help her connect more with the world around her. When she was little, we tried piano lessons, which she seemed to like, and in elementary school, she participated in choir but was usually content to listen, not join in with her peers. Then later in the evening, usually during shower time, I’d be treated to a full concert of all the music she’d learned that day.

THE BENEFITS OF MUSIC THERAPY 

I desperately wanted to use music to help open up E’s world, but only recently learned about music therapy, an evidence-based approach to using music to accomplish individualized goals. Working with a certified professional, this type of therapy can be used to work on increased communication, better listening skills, addressing behavioral concerns, more confidence and even anxiety management.

While my daughter happens to be very musical, musical ability is not a prerequisite for reaping the many benefits of music therapy. The sessions can result in an outlet for creative expression for kids on the spectrum and the skills learned in this setting can become the impetus for increased social interaction, which is something people on the spectrum find challenging. Because many people with autism spectrum disorder seem to respond to music, it can be an excellent therapy tool for working with them, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

Jenn Pacht-Goodman, a board-certified music therapist from Watchung, was an aspiring Broadway actress for years until she heard about music therapy.

“Music therapy is not music lessons,” she explains. “Music therapists are trained to work with people with special needs, which can include but is not limited to children and adults with developmental disabilities, mental illness, the elderly suffering with dementia and more. In order to hold the title of MT-BC the music therapist must complete coursework at an accredited college, complete an internship and finally, successfully pass the music therapy board exam.”

RONNIE KOENIG

CONNECTING THROUGH SONG 

Pact-Goodman, or “Jammin’ Jenn,” as she’s known to her students, says the goal of music therapy sessions is to make a meaningful connection through music. This can include singing, instrumental improvisation, lyric analysis and more.

“Each session starts with a ‘hello song,’ giving the client the opportunity to participate or just understand that the session is starting,” she says. “It’s very common to use the same ‘hello song’ weekly, allowing the client to learn words, participate and ultimately provide a boost of self-expression and self-esteem. The same goes for a ‘goodbye song.’ ”

Jammin’ Jenn and her staff work with children in both individual and school settings and she’s seen the magic of music work firsthand as a non-verbal child begins to acquire language, sounds and words in a session.

My daughter had the chance on several occasions to work with Jenn and I observed as she played guitar and piano, teasing words and music out of E as she engaged with her. She waited for E to respond and ask for what she wanted and within a short 30-minute session I could see that this method was a perfect fit for encouraging E to do everything from making eye contact to singing and speaking in a “call and response” to Jenn’s exuberant music making.

RONNIE KOENIG

It’s also no small thing that joining in music is something that makes E happy! Usually content to play on her own, I’ve seen my daughter engage with her peers over a shared love of music (from Taylor Swift to Lil Nas X) and she’s initiated communication with me by singing songs she’s learned until we are having a back and forth that feels like talking, but only better. I’ve seen music go from being something she enjoyed hearing to something she enjoys participating in. Through music, she’s found not just a way to engage with others, but something that she is skilled at and enjoys.

Because music is universal, it can be an amazing bridge for individuals to connect with others. Music therapy provides stimulation that may help to decrease self-stimulatory behaviors and it can give those with minimal or no verbal communication a way to be heard and to reciprocate with others. It can also simply be a fun, confidence-building experience!

Jammin’ Jenn’s Music Therapy Program is now in over 25 schools throughout New Jersey. But if your school isn’t one of them, you can still reap the benefits by checking out her YouTube channel, Jammin’ Jenn and Friends, where she provides a free educational resource for all kids. Go to musictherapy.org to find a music therapist near you.

—Ronnie Koenig is a writer, editor and mom of two from Princeton.