Music Therapy and Special Needs : A Parent's Perspective

Hey, everyone. welcome back to The Rhythm Tree. My name is Ryan Judd. I am a board certified music therapist today we’re going to be doing something a little bit different because this month is Music Therapy Advocacy Month. So, music therapists all over the country are sharing stories about music therapy. I would like to introduce to you to Katherine. She is the mother to one of my clients and just a wonderful, fantastic inspirational person to be around.

Judd: So, Katherine, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed today and sharing you story about music therapy. I’m curious… If you could tell us a little bit about your daughter and how you came to discover music therapy.

Katherine: Well, Zoe was a perfectly healthy baby and I enrolled her in Music Together classes from about six months on and our Music Together teacher just fell in love with Zoe. When she discovered Zoe wasn’t feeling very well throughout the summer when Zoe was between 2 and 3 years old, she connected me with you. Zoe, as it was discovered, had a brain tumor and right after her surgery, you came to our home. I never heard of music therapists and I knew that music therapy was for Zoe.

Judd: I remember that really well because the Music Together teacher was getting a lot of people to volunteer, come out here and do music with Zoe because Zoe loves music. She told me about it and I was just like, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ But, not only am I going to do music with Zoe, I was going to try to asses where she’s at and work on a couple of therapeutic goals. But, of course, making it fun and motivating.

Katherine: ..and that was quite a challenge for you because over the last year when you had been working with her, our therapeutic goals have had to change a great deal. Zoe’s health has progressed sometimes and then regressed a great deal and you had to modify your techniques and the goals that Zoe would be successful at. But, one goal that has remained the same has been to nurture Zoe’s soul and that’s what music therapy has done.

Judd: That’s one of the benefits, definitely. Can you tell me a little bit about the other benefits you’ve seen from music therapy?

Katherine: Well, I know that one massively destructive thing that happened when Zoe got sick was her lack of independence, her loss of independence. Zoe lost a lot of her abilities to move, to think and to speak and in music therapy, she trusts you. She knows that you’re not setting her up for failure. She knows you’ll walk her through her fears and be patient with her and will honor her ways of communicating. I know that sometimes, just to test you I think, Zoe will be engaging in an activity with you and she might experience frustration or just a lack of endurance or even just to test whether you will honor her ability to determine what she wants to do next. Sometimes, she’ll sort of just wilt, she waits there and she sometimes she springs back and says, “Hi, Ryan!” I think it’s a way for her to say that ‘I’m enjoying this, I want to be part of this, I might need you to try something different, I might need a different tempo…’ She doesn’t know how to say any of those things but she just takes a little break and then reengages. You’re patient with her – you don’t force an agenda on her and go with her rhythm. I think that’s key and she feels validated. She feels like you really enjoy being with her. It’s very difficult for some people to be with Zoe and I think she is insightful enough to read that. And, to have someone like you who honors her way of communicating, honors her timing, that really validates who she is.

Judd: Well, it’s such a pleasure and honor to work with her. It’s been an amazing journey so far and I hope we have many more years ahead of us of doing music together and working on therapeutic goals through music. If you were to tell something to parents with children with special needs out there who might not know much about music therapy, what would you tell those people?

Katherine: Well, one key ingredient for our day-to-day life here at home has been Zoe’s IEP. We were able to integrate social, emotional and music therapy goals into Zoe’s IEP and that made it possible for some of Zoe’s music therapy sessions to be covered by the school. I think that’s really key for parents to learn. You and I work together and you’re able to show evidence of Zoe being able to meet goals in a music therapy session and the school honored that – they were thrilled, they are thrilled to have you as part of the team because they see that music lowers Zoe’s anxiety and gets her to engage for a longer period of time. She forgets that she’s being challenged sometimes. The second thing is that many hospitals have music therapists available. When Zoe would be going through a difficult procedure or when she would be experiencing trauma, she was often unsedated. We were allowed to bring in a music therapist in those periods of time to help distract her from what had to get done. Also, it has helped the parents because even just recently, we had thought her cancer had returned and we needed to have a really weighty discussion with her doctor but we didn’t want to separate Zoe from her doctor. We wanted him to see her so he could see the manifestations of something that we were concerned was returned cancer. So, we asked a music therapist to sit in the session with us so that Zoe wouldn’t feel the gravity of that conversation and she could enjoy blowing bubbles which is what they did. They were singing, blowing bubbles, and it was great. So, those are two logistical I would tell parents that maybe in regards to schools and hospitals. But, the clientele you work with is special needs and those parents often have a completely different set of goals for their children than maybe other parents. They also have perhaps a different timeline. I know with Zoe, we don’t know how long she’ll be here. So, we prioritize what we want for her life probably a little differently than a parent that expects their child to outlive them. With Zoe, I want her moments here where she can feel honored, validated, heard and understood where her spirit is free to be livened and to be engaged in her way. That’s part of what music therapy does best for Zoe.

Judd: That’s beautiful, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that.

Katherine: Thank you, Ryan.

Judd: I am, again, so honored to be working with you and your family. It’s been amazing and thank you so much for sharing your story with all the listeners out there. I appreciate it.

Katherine: My honor.

Judd: Thanks, everyone. Catch us next time at Thank you.

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