Music Therapy – Hitting that Right Note for Children and Adults with Disabilities

by O’Ryan Case, UCP’s Manager of Public Education Programs

 

UCP’s 2014 Annual Conference is right around the corner and will be in Nashville, Tennessee– otherwise known as Music City. I mention this because I recently had a chance to learn about music therapy, a program that I hope every individual with a disability and their families has a chance to check out at some point.

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), “Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program” (AMTA, 2013). First, let me emphasize the “credentialed professional” part– I have learned that these professionals are extremely dedicated to their work and music therapy involves much more than simply playing music and singing. I will explain this a little further later. I have heard of music therapy before, but it was not until I saw a recent post by writer Ellen Seidman, on her blog, “Love That Max: Special Needs Blog” that it really caught my attention. In this post, a video shows Seidman’s son, Max, full of excitement and singing along with his music therapist. It looked like a blast! And I wanted to learn more.

Fortunately, UCP’s affiliate in South Florida, UCP of Miami, has an incredible music therapy program and its Executive Director, Dr. Leigh Kapps, put me in touch with its two board certified music therapists, Dr. Linda Lathroum and Ms. Meaghan Gasch. Dr. Lathroum works with their high school and adult music therapy programs, and Ms. Gasch works with their preschool program. I had the opportunity to ask them both some questions, and below are some of the highlights of our conversation:

 

How did you get started and how long have you been doing this?

Meaghan Gasch: It is my pleasure! I’ve been doing this for three years.

Linda Lathroum: It is my pleasure as well. Eleven years for me– in order to become a Music Therapist, Board Certified (MT-BC), you have to complete four years of school work, followed by a six-month internship and then pass an exam. There’s much more involved in our work than simply playing music and singing.


At what ages have you seen children begin having music therapy sessions?

Gasch: We have a class specifically for ages 0 – 2, and I have worked with a baby as young as four months old. I would say a common age to begin is at two-years-old.

Lathroum: Music therapy has been used in neonatal intensive-care units, all the way to hospice settings. It truly is beneficial for people of any age.


Can you tell me about the types of benefits that music therapy brings and how it works with other therapies, such as occupational therapy and physical therapy?

Gasch: Music therapy helps build physical health and cognitive, social and communication skills. In our preschool, the therapy helps children learn how to pay attention, verbalize and interact with others, as well as their motor coordination.

Lathroum: Although music, physical and occupational therapists work in separate professional fields and have specific goals, there is a huge overlap with our work, and we definitely work as a team.


How often do children and adults participate in music therapy sessions and how long does it typically take before you notice results?

Gasch: Our preschool runs 30-minute sessions and I’ve led private sessions that have lasted up to an hour. Progress is very specific to the individual– results can be seen as soon as one week after music therapy begins, or it can take years before results are seen. For example, a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be very sensitive to the sound of music and spend an entire session covering his or her ears for months before becoming desensitized to the music.

Lathroum: Sessions at our high school and adult programs, which see twenty-three and 200 participants respectively, last around 40 minutes. Like many aspects of music therapy, the duration of sessions is individualized and depends on the attention spans of the participants.

 
Meaghan, you mentioned working with a child who has an ASD and may be sensitive to sounds. Are there types of things you do to help accommodate this?

Gasch: I actually have two classes for children with ASDs. Doing things such as lowering the volume and letting the children touch and explore the instruments can help the children feel more comfortable. It may seem like a small detail, but using a classical guitar, as opposed to a steel string guitar, can help as well. A classical guitar has nylon strings, which creates a more subdued sound, as opposed to a steel string guitar, which has metal strings and gives a louder, metallic sound.


What types of instruments and music do you like to use and play?

Gasch: Definitely percussion instruments. Drums, pianos and guitars are probably the most-commonly used instruments, but I also like to use my accordion, washboard and harmonica.

Lathroum: I use a lot of percussion instruments, but I also play the guitar, piano, and violin, and like to use those well. As far as the type of music to play, I find that participants most enjoy music that was popular when they were in their early-20s. So, I tend to play a lot of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley music in my adult classes.

 

Is it true that insurance companies do not cover music therapy sessions?

Gasch: No. Though there can be a lot involved, there are ways to get insurance companies to cover them. I have seen instances when a child receives four to five hours of music therapy covered each week. I would say a lot of it has to do with the particular insurance companies.

Lathroum: There are ways it can be done. What is encouraging is that, as music therapy and its demand continues to grow, more and more people will continue to request it and things should get better.


As we wrap up, do you have a favorite story or highlight that you would like to share?

Gasch: Absolutely. I remember working with a six-year-old boy with autism. He was extremely smart. He was nonverbal, had challenges communicating and was prone to having tantrums. When we first began our music therapy sessions, he would get upset. He slowly started to play with the instruments and then, one day, I realized he loved the microphone. I spoke into one, saying “hello,” then gave it to him and watched him say “hello” back. From that point, he loved having a microphone, even if it meant him using a paper-towel roll as one. One day, his mother was at our school and ended up crying with joy as she watched him singing with his microphone.

Lathroum: Let me tell you– that “microphone” is magic! The individuals I work with absolutely love having one. It can really be a motivating tool, and truly helps with linguistic and social skills. One experience that really resonates with me is seeing how excited participants get about performing at our chorus events. Our program has groups that go out and perform into our community, and it is so wonderful to see the joy that it brings. Another highlight is seeing progress, no matter of its size or how long it takes to see it. When I see participants go from covering their ears and being totally unengaged, to holding hands and singing with others, it truly is rewarding.


Thank you so much for speaking with me. How can people learn more about music therapy?

Lathroum: The AMTA’s website has great resources for parents and professionals that I would highly recommend!

Gasch: Additionally, if anyone would ever like to come visit UCP of Miami and observe our programs, he or she would be more than welcome to do so!

 

It was a pleasure learning more about music therapy and the types of benefits that it brings. Hopefully, its demand continues to rise and more and more sessions become covered by insurance companies. As Seidman said, they should be.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about music therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Lathroum (linda.lathroum@ucpsouthflorida.org) or Ms. Gasch (meaghan.gasch@ucpsouthflorida.org). You can also email me at ocase@ucp.org.