I cannot believe July is already in full-swing and this is the fourth post in the Broadway Music Therapy interventions series! If you missed the previous posts, be sure to check them out before or after you finish this one. I hope your summer is going as well as mine, and that this time with family and friends is not wasted. I believe summer is the best time to develop old and new friendships, but, as you probably know first-hand, developing relationships can be challenging for individuals with autism. It is such a critical element of autism that the DSM 5, the latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, has made social communication one of the 2 impairments necessary to diagnose autism. Because this is such a critical area of development, it is the focus of my post today; Social and Emotional skills through music therapy for children with autism. The interventions today will focus on identifying and expressing specific emotions, as well as developing appropriate social interaction skills.
You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown is an excellent musical for both children and adults. With The Peanuts making such a comeback in the past few years, I figured this was the perfect musical to use in this series. While many of the songs in this show can be used to teach important life lessons, one of my favorites is the song “Happiness.” If you haven’t heard the song yet, it describes all of the little things that bring us joy in life. I have used this songs in a few different ways in sessions.
First, I have the client listen to the song either with the recording or with me singing. Depending on the client’s level, I might have them follow along with the lyrics of the song or with a picture book I have created. I have the client point out what the characters are defining as happiness. For example they say happiness is… “finding a pencil,” “pizza with sausage,” and “learning to whistle.”
Then, I have the client identify what makes them feel happy. Together we make a list of what happiness is to them. We use this list to create a new version of the song with the things that bring them joy as the new lyrics. This could be as simple as “Happiness is drinking some coffee, singing a new song, dancing with mom.”
To take this intervention to the next level, I then have the clients identify what makes others feel happy. In a group setting this works exceptionally well! I have my clients draw another group member’s name from a hat and that is who they have to write their song about. I give them a structured “interview” worksheet to ask their friends about their likes and dislikes. You can make the worksheet however you like, but some of my questions include “What is your favorite color?” "Who is your favorite singer?” "When is your bed time?”
The clients conduct their interviews, then use the answers to create their own version of “Happiness” for their friend in the group. For example “What is your favorite color?” “Who is your favorite singer?” and “When is your bed time?” become “Happiness is the color yellow, Katy Perry, staying up past 9.” I take the worksheet with the interview answers and help turn it into a song so that it fits with the music easily. I then play the new version of the song for the group and they have to vote on which group member the song is about.
If you are doing this intervention one-on-one, the client can go home and interview a family member or a friend using the worksheet, or they can just tell you about one of their friends, siblings, etc. and fill-in-the-banks with you.
Identifying emotions – the first step of this intervention is identifying what happiness is. This can be the initial skill you are working on and you don’t even get to the social interaction and songwriting component. The clients have to list experiences that have made them feel happy, and that can help to teach the emotion of happiness based on situations that have already happened. You could use this same song and take it in a different direction to teach other emotions as well. After you identify what makes the client feel happy, you could identify things that cause sadness, anger, etc. You can change the song lyrics around these emotions depending on your client’s area of need. You can use visual choice boards for non-verbal clients to have them identify situations that cause them to feel a specific emotion.
Social interaction skills – the skills I am most working on with this intervention are initiating conversation, sustaining conversation (back and forth), using “wh” questions, and responding to “wh” questions. These are important skills for social communication and this intervention gives clients a structured way to practice these skills. As clients become more advanced, you can slowly take away the structured prompts and have them engage in sustained conversation without assistance.
This intervention is more for your high-functioning, teenage clients with autism or those clients who simply have a difficult time “fitting in” with their peers. Mr. Cellophane is an incredible song about a man feeling invisible, even when he is standing in a room full of people dying to be noticed. The whole song is not 100% appropriate, so I use a clip from the beginning to 1:55. I use this song as a lyric analysis to help my clients critically think about their emotions and how they are impacted by certain situations.
First, I print out the lyrics to the excerpt of the song I have chosen and pass them out to each client. I have the clients listen to the song excerpt and ask them to circle one lyric of the song that sticks out to them. I don’t ask any questions yet, I just walk around and make sure everyone understands the direction. I play the song a second time and instruct the clients to circle a second lyric that sticks out to them.
After listening to the song twice through, I go around in a circle and have each client read the two lyrics they circled. I don’t ask them to share why yet, I simply note if a client chose the same lyrics as another group member. I write the lyrics on the board, or whatever you have available, as the clients share them.
Once every client has shared their chosen lyrics, I circle one of the quotes I have written on the board and ask the clients what that lyric means to them. I then lead a discussion based on that song lyric and my goals for the day. The conversation generally begins with a literal interpretation of the lyric, and then we dive into what that means “between the lines” or on an emotional level.
The beauty of this intervention is that it can go in many different directions and can be used with basically any set of song lyrics. The topics I like to focus on with this song are feeling invisible, being left out, not having friends no matter how hard you try. I have found that these topics resonate with my clients and are easier to discuss with tangible quotes and song lyrics to use in discussion.
Emotional Expression – this seems so simple, but for many of my clients with autism, they don’t have the opportunity or skills to express all of the things they are feeling inside or thinking in their minds. Using something tangible like quotes and song lyrics can help them strategically create an emotional discussion and give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings.
Accepting Others’ Opinions – this is an important social interaction skill to learn, and it can be a very challenging one to work on. Lyric analysis is an individual interpretation and, though two clients may have chosen the same lyric, that does not mean they have the same thoughts and feelings around that lyric. Clients must engage in a discussion and accept that their point of view is not the only point of view in the room.
Both of these interventions I have found immensely useful in my practice and think they can be used in a variety of ways at home, in other therapy sessions, or in the classroom. Teaching children with autism how to critically think, evaluate, discuss, and express themselves is essential for social and emotional development, which will lead to an improvement in overall social communication skills.
I hope you try these interventions for yourself and would love to hear how they work for your clients. Check-in next week for the final post in the Broadway series, focused on sensory regulation strategies! Don’t forget to follow Dynamic Lynks on Facebook and Instagram for more great tips and tricks, as well as awesome updates on our holistic therapy center. See you next week!