The Soothing Sounds of Music
Some of the happiest moments in Nina's life right now are in Mercy Home’s music therapy. Her mother, Maria, has been excited and amazed at her progress. “There have been really magical, spiritual, fulfilling, amazing moments.”
For Maria and her husband Gustavo, it’s been a long journey looking for resources that could help their daughter. She has autism, an intellectual disability, and Down syndrome. “We struggled a lot helping her interact appropriately with others. She wants to be around people, but she doesn’t know how to regulate her emotions.” When she feels excited about seeing friends, she would hit and scratch them.
“She is not aggressive,” says her mother, “she just interacts by hitting pulling, kicking ... that’s the way she interacts. She gets overly excited.”
But in Mercy Home’s music therapy, Nina has learned to connect with others and with music. She does not engage in sensory seeking behaviors like pulling hair or biting “even though she’s very excited.” “It’s like she’s a completely different person.” In music therapy now, she never throws anything and she even knows how to play some instruments.
Mercy Home’s Ben Neusius, Nina’s Medicaid Service Coordinator, says that “Medicaid will not pay for individualized therapy sessions, so we struggled to see if we could find a provider, but we found that we can make it work here.” Mercy Home provides this service to her free of charge.
Participating in Mercy Home’s music therapy had an immediate impact. Never before had Nina sang or danced, “she would simply smile and move her head,” her mother said. “Now she stands up and starts dancing around the room when the therapy is going on!” She also began to sing. “It’s Incredible to see that she has intonation and she has rhythm.”
Though Nina couldn’t participate in the weekly Respite program, Ben worked with the Creative Arts program so that two music therapists could offer a private session. “The ultimate goal is to slowly add another child or two to the therapy, and begin to mimic a full therapy session.”
Her mom has been elated, “it’s been a very difficult, fulfilling, confusing, scary, beautiful, wonderful journey.”
“She was in a coma for two and a half months on life support. The doctors were telling us that she wouldn’t survive, that we needed to disconnect her.” But Maria convinced them to allow her to play music. It was the first time that they noticed their daughter responded positively to music.
At first, the doctors were reluctant because she was on a respirator. “Any emotion could impact the machine because it worked on high pressure, so the lung could collapse.” Nina’s vital signs improved immediately. Her heart, which was four times the size for a child her age, responded to the sounds of Bach and Beethoven. Her heart rate decreased and her oxygen saturation level improved, decreasing the incidents of hypoxia. From then on, “I always felt that music is the key to her health.”
Therapists use the creative arts to help organize and structure a child’s auditory and visual environment in a way that is comfortable and non-threatening, engaging them in a way that teaches them new skills. In Nina’s music therapy, for example, the therapists use a goodbye song to ease her out of the session into something new.
Now the family use music throughout Nina’s life: “we have a song for every single thing, from bath time to bed time to meal time. Everything begins with a song and ends with a song.”
For the repetition that is common for an individual with autism, the therapists do something special. “When she repeats something, they turn it into a song. So, instead of just repeating, like yelling or screaming, she sings it. It’s just magical.”
Mercy Home also purchased an iPad for the family. Maria uses the iPad to record the sessions and plays back the recordings to calm Nina down when she is not in music therapy. They also replay the videos to reinforce positive behaviors. “Nina seeks a lot of praise, so we show her the videos of her walking and say, ‘Look, Nina’s walking, Nina’s doing very well,’ rather than ‘get up, you shouldn’t be on the floor.’ It avoids a back and forth struggle.”
Maria is convinced that music therapy is vital for her daughter. “It reinforces my belief that there is so much that we can do for her that doesn’t require medication or restraining her.” She commended the work of the therapists and Ben. “They are so wise and sensitive. They have given her so much more than we could have expected.”