Music for Autism
Encouraging everyone to march to the beat of their own drum
Taking your kids out for a day of fun-filled activities is a great way to bond. However, for parents of children with autism, that’s easier said than done. The stress over how their child will behave throughout the day makes it difficult to enjoy situations where a certain type of behavior is expected. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects development and can cause deficits in communication and socialization, as well as a reliance on routines, sensitivity to change, and inappropriate behaviors. These effects are what can make outings with autistic children challenging. Parents can’t predict how others will respond to their child’s behavior or how their child will respond to new environments.
Fortunately, not all entertainment venues require particular etiquette, and, in fact, one is geared specifically toward children with autism. Music for Autism is an organization that hosts interactive concerts where behavioral differences are not only accepted, but celebrated.
In 2002, Music for Autism was co-founded in the UK by two musicians with an autistic son. The program quickly gained momentum from there, and in 2007 it was introduced in the US. Today, interactive, autismfriendly concerts are held regularly in New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Houston, and the program is expected to expand within those cities as well as new cities to connect with more families touched with autism.
The concerts feature local, professional musicians, which have included Tony Award winners and Grammy nominees. The artists go through thorough training with artist coordinator Ryan Gardner to ensure everyone has a safe and fun experience. This allows autistic chil- dren to experience music that could be heard at a concert hall, but in an environment where any response to the music is welcome—from sitting quietly and listening, to getting up and dancing, or even taking a seat right next to the musicians.
Research has found that music is something that autistic children have in common with others, as music is processed similarly by those with ASD and those with typical development. According to Elizabeth Santiso, CEO, “the goal of Music for Autism is to expose those with autism and their families to high quality, professionally performed music in an environment where individual differences are celebrated and where no one will be embarrassed.” The concerts are a way for those with autism to be able to process music like everyone else and experience it in their own unique way without judgment.
The hour-long concerts are held in three phases: concert time, conducting time, and percussion time. Concert time starts it off with the musicians playing and interacting with the audience and suggesting different ways for the audience to interact with the music. During conducting time, the musicians teach the audience how to conduct and have the whole audience conduct them together or have a few participants take turns conducting. The show ends with the most interactive portion of the concert, percussion time. Soft percussion instruments are passed out to audience members, and they are encouraged to play along or “soft clap” (pat their knees) to the music. The different components of the concerts keep the audience engaged through the whole show.
Not only are performances fun for all, they are also free. All one has to do is RSVP to the concert they would like to attend and show up. This makes Music for Autism concerts available to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The concerts are an amazing venture for musicians and audience members alike. They are definitely fun for volunteers, but Santiso has also heard many stories of “how they find themselves becoming less judgmental and less quick to stigmatize individuals who appear to be displaying odd behaviors.” The musicians’ positive experiences and attitudes lend to the welcoming environment experienced by parents and children. Jennifer Franklin, who brought her 13-year-old daughter to a concert, said “The music was spectacular, of course, but even more meaningful were the open-hearted attitudes of the performers and the volunteers. It was a delight to see how much all of the children and parents were enjoying themselves as a family.”
Learn more about Music for Autism at: musicforautism.org.