Recently in my behavioral pediatrics practice I saw James, a 5-year-old boy (details, as always, have been changed to protect privacy) who struggled with severe social anxiety. The lunchroom and gym were particularly difficult, and he would retreat into silence. In a visit with his parents we were discussing how to approach the teachers about making him comfortable in school. We had a full 50 minute appointment so we were, in a sense, free to let ideas emerge. That's when his father observed, "You know, he loves classical music." His mother described a recent outing where there had been a lot going on and James was quite agitated. But when someone put on some classical music, James became completely calm and seemed at peace.
It was an important detail. We began to brainstorm about how they might make use of this observation in the school setting in addition to social experiences outside of the classroom.
This story led me to wonder how this piece of information might help us to understand James' brain. For some reason he couldn't process all the sensory information coming at him in a busy social scene. But with the help of classical music, it was as if the neurons, the cells of his brain, lined up and began to work properly.
This visit got me thinking about a movie I recently saw The Music Never Stopped. It is based on the story of an actual patient as described by neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks in his essay "The Last Hippie." The movie's main character is a young man who suffered severe brain injury, and was socially disconnected even from his immediate family. But he had been a passionate musician, and when when he listened to music he loved from the time before his injury he became completely clear thinking and engaged. Like my young patient, his brain was a place of confusion and disorganization until the music allowed things to, in a sense, fall into place.
Interestingly, while working on this post I received an email from the publicist at Berklee College of Music alerting me to an upcoming program (October 5th-6th) about music therapy for autism spectrum disorders. The press release for the program states:
There is scientific evidence that music therapy influences children on the autism spectrum in several ways, like enhancing skills in communication, interpersonal relationships, self-regulation, coping strategies, stress management, and focusing attention," says Berklee's Music Therapy Department Chair Dr. Suzanne Hanser.
Similar to my young patient with social anxiety, children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are often overwhelmed by sensory input. It makes perfect sense to me that music would help them to organize their experience and engage with the world around them.
There is currently an explosion of research at the intersection of neuroscience, genetics, and developmental psychology to help us understand young children who are struggling with a range of what are usually referred to as "behavior problems." I am a clinician, not a researcher. However, I listen carefully to my young patients. I encourage their parents, as James' parents clearly were, to be curious about what the world is like for them. If we listen and observe in this way, these children can be our greatest teachers.