Music therapy helps children who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The Conservatorium of Music and the Wellington Branch of Autism New Zealand successfully trialled a school holiday programme of music experiences for children who have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Health science lecturer Stuart McLaren, father of an autistic child, suggested the initiative after seeing the benefits of music therapy with his son.

“Music therapy, which builds on music as a non-verbal communication, has many benefits for children who have ASD. We are keen to offer this experience to other children and their parents,” says Mr McLaren.

“While many of our children struggle with interpersonal skills and verbal communication, they often have a real connection with music. They might even have a special strength in music, and some have perfect pitch – so why not use such strengths to help them?”

Autism is a developmental disorder. “Traditional’ autism affects about 4 in 10,000 children, while the broader diagnosis of ASD is said to affect as many as 1 in 1,000. Autism is characterised by deficits in communication and social skills, and restricted or rigid interests. Many children with autism have a particular interest in music.

The holiday programme ran in the music therapy room at the Conservatorium. Sessions were facilitated by Alison Talmage and Judy Silverwood, postgraduate music therapy students. Staff on the music therapy programme, Dr Robert Krout and Daphne Rickson, were on hand to offer advice and support.

Ms Talmage says music is a really good way to communicate with children, and to help them communicate and express themselves. As a primary school teacher, she had seen how effective music is with children, particularly for children with autism.

The University’s Music Therapy programme is the only training course in New Zealand, and the first students will graduate this year. Although music therapy is rapidly becoming accepted as a mainstream approach to meeting the needs of children who have special education needs, there are only 12 registered music therapists in New Zealand, and they are in high demand.

Dr Krout and Ms Rickson are delighted that their postgraduate students are able to offer support to children and families, and to get this type of practical experience while studying. The Master of Music Therapy course has a high emphasis on supervised practice - clinical observations, co-leading and eventual facilitation of sessions by students.

They anticipate the programme leading to further collaboration between Autism New Zealand and the Conservatorium of Music, and to the development of clinical treatment programmes for a range of clients.

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