Music helps kids with special needs find their voices

The Westmount Music Therapy clinic has helped improve motor skills and socialization for children with special needs

When Teddy Plourde was 3, the caregivers at his daycare noticed he was a little different. Unlike the other children, Teddy did not speak and was often unaware of what was going on around him. Soon after speaking with his mother Vanessa Sicotte, Teddy was evaluated and diagnosed with autism.

“We tried so many things to get him to speak but couldn’t get him to say a word,” recalls Sicotte, who enrolled her son at Westmount Music Therapy shortly after noticing music was one of the only things he responded to, whether by clapping his hands or tapping his feet.

“Teddy began talking after starting music therapy sessions; first he would mimic the sounds he heard in the songs, then it was words and then sentences,” Sicotte says. “Over the first couple of weeks, we saw him bloom and within a few months he had transformed into a completely different boy.”

According to owner and music therapist Alison Usher-Jones, Teddy is one of many children on the spectrum who have had breakthroughs after attending the private clinic for music therapy.

She says they work with children to achieve non-musical goals, such as language development, increased motor skills, socialization and language intonation.

“Through music, we are able to access a different part of the brain to create new pathways towards achieving social, cognitive, physical, emotional, or developmental goals,” she says.

Diana Dipietro, whose son Lorenzo Capogrosso was diagnosed with autism at 27 months, says she decided to try music therapy because her very active son would sit still for a few moments when he heard music.

“To get him to sit for 30 seconds used to be such a challenge so to see him sit for 15 minutes and bat on a drum is a miracle to us,” says Dipietro, who adds that her son has become more aware of his surroundings and is building relationships. “I didn’t used to be able to leave him in a room alone but he trusts Alison and walks through the door (of the clinic) happy.”

Caroline Leclair’s 8-year-old son Liam, who was diagnosed with autism at 20 months, has been going to music therapy for three years but still doesn’t speak. “Although his speech has not progressed, Liam continues to show more and more interest in instruments and has started working on other ways of communicating during the sessions,” she says.

Since its inception three years ago, the services have been in high demand and the clinic is now open seven days a week. Recently, a specialist was hired to offer neurological music therapy, which was developed for people suffering from cognitive, sensory, or motor dysfunctions. Moreover, adapted music lessons in guitar, piano, drums and voice were introduced this year.

“These new music lessons are for children who want to learn an instrument but have trouble doing so in a conventional environment,” Usher-Jones says. “We have a wonderful music teacher who creates personalized lesson plans for each child, taking into account their challenges and strengths.”

The clinic is also partnering with the University of Montreal in a study that will measure how music therapy affects the brain of children with autism.

 “Normally with autism therapies, the focus is on things the child can’t do very well, however; with music therapy we’re focusing on their strengths,” Usher-Jones says. “And we don’t need to provide incentives in the form of candies or presents; they are motivated to continue because they are good at something.”

For more information, call 514-942-0698 or visit westmountmusictherapy.ca