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My Tryst with Music Therapy for Children with Autism - My Take by Rajam Shankar, classical musical therapist


My Take this week we have Rajam Shankar, an Indian classical music therapist, who collaborates with medical, curative education and rehabilitation professionals in the use of classical music components in therapeutic intervention.

Music Therapy is the use of sounds and music within an evolving relationship between client and therapist to support and encourage physical, mental, social and emotional well-being - Leslie Bunt, Music Therapy, An Art Beyond Words.

Having spent over three decades as a Instructor in Carnatic Classical Music, my own association with Music Therapy was probably fated to start during a visit to Sydney, Australia in 2003, where I met delegates, including doctors from India, attending a conference of the International Anthroposophical Medical Society.

Indian classical music and healing

Informal interaction with them was followed by an invitation to make a presentation on the potential of Indian Classical Music in Music Therapy - a two hours a day, five consecutive days presentation at Hyderabad to an audience of eminent medical specialists, psychologists, and other inter-disciplinary therapists from Switzerland, Germany, Australia, UK, USA, and India with many of whom I continue contact.

They acknowledged that the potential of Indian Classical Music, especially Carnatic Classical Music to deliver a calibrated therapeutic intervention with greater success was by any measure more than that possessed by the Western Classical Music system.

Any opportunity to provide a healing intervention to challenged children is divine and consequently, I commenced my endeavour with a monitored deployment programme for Autistic Children at Saandeepani – a center for healing established in Hyderabad. Treating autistic children at Saandeepani and at a centre established by the Parents Association for Autistic Children (PAAC) at Secunderabad, Swaras [notes] and Ragas (Scales) were carefully calibrated and the musical ‘dosage’ delivered to evoke a perceivable response.

Client specific approach

The changes were remarkably encouraging over a twelve-month period, and the behavioural and response characteristics in the children noticeably positive.

Music Therapy interventions in treating Children affected by Autism is based on resonant response produced by selected musical notes. The capacity of each individual child to receive, react and respond to these resonating vibrations is different. Children with different levels of disability cannot communicate their preferences or acceptance clearly.

Music Therapy intervention is therefore necessarily client specific. It commences with a detailed preliminary evaluation and a number of specific inputs from the clients’ treatment and support team which may include doctors, psychologists, teachers, caseworkers, and their parents. The evaluation determines the degrees of disabilities, like Autism ‘score’ and helps outline the therapeutic goals.

Gradual progress

Consequent on a detailed evaluation of inputs, musical interventions are designed, derived, developed, and deployed by the therapist based on their knowledge of the chosen music’s affect on behaviour, the clients’ strengths and weaknesses, and the desired therapeutic goals.

Significant and perceivable transformation varies from child to child. In case of hyperactive children, I notice that they calm down after a few sessions of music therapy. The technique we use for calming them down is called grounding. In this, we try to use Music Therapy to influence them and get their attention.

In case of sedentary children, who do not at all move, we use Music Therapy to enable them to move their hands. Then comes the eye contact. They start looking at me, then they start putting the beats or taal to the music, some of them try to sing along or repeat a few words.

Let me mention one of my client cases. This boy came to me when he was seven to eight years old, non-verbal, and hyperactive. Initially he was not interested in the therapy sessions at all. Both his parents would come with him. His father would hold him on his lap, the boy would actually sit tightly hugging his father, with his back towards me. He would even close his ears when I started singing. Slowing he started getting more interested in the sessions.

After three to four sittings, he got slightly comfortable with the sessions, and he stopped closing his ears. After a few more sittings, he started looking at me. While I was singing, he would see the movement in my throat , he would touch my throat to feel the movement. Then he would touch his own throat and maybe wonder why there was no movement in his own throat. He was also very attracted to the electronic Tampura or Shruti drone.

He couldn’t read but he understood different pitches. If the Shruti was set at a pitch different from his normal pitch, he would adjust it to match his pitch. As therapy progressed, he started improving more and more, his sense of rhythm became better, his diction became clearer. Now after about four years, the boy can sing clearly and in tune, he knows how to operate the computer, he is doing well in his studies, it’s such a joy seeing him happy, well adjusted and doing well for himself.

In conclusion I must submit that my two decades plus Music Therapy practice has presented its unique challenges. We are a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-faith society, and the sensitivities associated with each of these facets have to be consciously factored into the protocols deployed by a therapist.

The few who are seriously practicing Music Therapy in India in a collaborative environment are doing so with conscious restraint and great personal responsibility - hands-on, one-to-one and where the responses are perceived, seen, felt, recorded, monitored and modified continuously.

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