In a world of their own

By Aviva Bar-Am

Music can do more than soothe the savage breast

When 10-year-old Nathan wants to talk to his mother, he sings. “He uses music to communicate, ” says his mother, Barbara. “He loves the song from Dumbo the Elephant – ‘Baby Mine.'”

When Nathan wants a hug or a cuddle, he comes up to his mother and sings that song.

Autistic youngsters like Nathan lack a basic ability to express themselves, and often use a variety of antisocial or bizarre behaviors instead. Gila has had plenty of this sort of experience with her son Rami, also 10. Once, on a visit to Jerusalem’s Malha Mall, Rami took off. Gila scurried from one store to the next, finally locating him in a toy shop next to an enormously expensive box of connecting blocks. He pointed at the box, indicating that he wanted to take it home.

“When I said ‘no,'” says Gila, “Rami began screaming and throwing things, and breaking toys all over the store.” Experience had taught Gila that there was no way to quietly whisk away her son. She wrestled him to the floor, keeping his head at a goodly distance from her nose so that he couldn’t break it. Then, firmly holding his hands so that he couldn’t pull her hair, and at the same time grabbing his feet, she began carrying him out of the store.

One horrified shopper watching the scene shrieked: “I’m going to report you to the police as a child abuser!”

Other typical autistic behaviors include rocking back and forth, beating their heads against the wall, screaming, or savagely biting both themselves and others. Sometimes autistic children will repeat a word obsessively, shout unintelligible sounds, or hold their hands over their ears. There are some who sit by themselves for hours, engrossed in their own protective cocoons, unwilling, and unable, to connect with their peers.

In the 1940s Leo Kaner and Hans Asperger first published case studies on children who seemed to have withdrawn from the world. Both used the word autistic in their descriptions, and both felt that there was a basic disturbance present from birth which led to the children’s symptoms. Since then the word autism (from the Greek “self”) has been used to describe the condition. It appears in early childhood at a rate of three to five per 10,000 births. In Israel 60 children are diagnosed with the disorder each year, and it is two to four times more common in boys than in girls.

Though there is no cure, there is always hope for improvement
Today, Rami’s mother says she can take her son anywhere without suffering embarrassment.

For years Barbara couldn’t even say the word “autistic” without crying. Now, she says, her son Nathan is her favorite topic of discussion. “Not because he is autistic,” she says, “but because of how far he has come.”

“I can’t prove it,” says music therapist Shmuel Ben-Dov, “but I believe that an unusually high proportion of autistic children have an innate musical sense. Because music speaks to them, it can be used to help pupils socialize, interact, learn, and express emotion. It also brings the children great pleasure.”
One school is using this innate musicality to try and reach autistic children. Yad HaMoreh, a public elementary school in Jerusalem, led the world in integrating low-level functioning autistic children with perfectly normal pupils.

Parents reserve special praise for the school’s music director, Ben-Dov, whose program and equipment are unique to the Middle East. Operating out of a simple classroom, but with the latest technology at his disposal, Ben-Dov has been able to help hundreds of autistic pupils improve their communication skills.
“I believe that autistic youngsters have untapped abilities hidden behind a very complicated lock. It is my job to discover the key,” he says.

Shy and unassuming, Ben-Dov first became interested in autism while studying for a degree in special education. As part of the program he volunteered at a center for autistic children, and was mesmerized by their enormously positive response to music. An accomplished musician, he soon added musicology to his program of studies and eventually got a second degree in music therapy.

Gracing the little classroom are some extraordinary instruments donated from all over the globe. The piano has a computerized keyboard with which each and every pupil can succeed in playing a tune. Autistic children are fascinated by lights and motion, and this piano’s keys light up in red to guide the child’s fingers. Musical selections range from Mozart to the latest Israeli hits, and while the pupil plays the piano accompanies him with a tasteful orchestral arrangement.

Rami is a gorgeous lad with black curly hair, large, liquid eyes and long, dark eyelashes who began his music sessions by fighting Ben-Dov every step of the way. Not only did he bite, kick, push, and try to bash his teacher’s nose with his head, he wouldn’t agree to do anything Ben-Dov suggested. Now, however, Rami hates it when the sessions end. He has become flexible enough to negotiate the day’s program, and his ability to verbalize is developing beautifully.

If it were up to Rami, the entire music lesson would center around animals, using the room’s ultra-sophisticated apparatus. The system includes a series of eight ceiling lights that shine colored beams onto the floor. Pupils hold a reflector in their hand and learn that when they cut off the beams the action makes a sound. Kids love to experiment with the beams, discovering that they can create a sound quickly by waving the reflectors back and forth, or slowly by studiously shifting from one to the other. When Ben-Dov sets the computer to jungle noises at Rami’s request, the child roars like a lion and makes like a monkey – depending on the sound he produces by moving the reflector.

“The idea is to help them make the connection between cause and effect, and to bring the autistic child out of his inner world,” says Ben-Dov.

The Soundbeam consists of a platform and two microphone-shaped sensors. When they sit or stand on the platform and wave their arms in front of the sensors, pupils can produce a variety of sounds that have been programmed for this specific purpose.

“Many autistic children flap their hands involuntarily. If they do it in front of the sensors, they immediately hear music or some other sound and become aware of the movements they are making,” says Ben-Dov. “They can also feel the sounds – in vibrations under their feet through the sound box.”

Eli, 11, is extremely hyperactive. Although he isn’t particularly musical, his father finds that Eli can be calmed and comforted by music. Learning songs in music therapy has helped him communicate: he uses words from the songs to express his needs. Today, although it’s impossible to carry on a conversation with Eli, and he doesn’t initiate contact, he is able to make a spontaneous request, says his dad. Sometimes he can even answer a question.

At the piano in the music room, Eli’s head swerves around incessantly, while pounding the same key over and over to the beat. To an onlooker what he is doing seems somehow futile – a total waste of time. But Ben-Dov explains that the keyboard plays a melody even if the child is only pressing keys to the correct rhythm. So that Eli, although unable to focus visually, managed to play a whole song from start to finish.

“Just the fact that he sat down while playing is tremendous progress,” says Ben-Dov. “So is his ability to somehow make me understand exactly what song he wanted to play.”

It can be excruciatingly slow going – and it can be uplifting.

“At times, with autistic children, you get the feeling that any minute now there is going to be a breakthrough,” says Ben-Dov, who relishes those rare occasions on which a child takes a giant leap forward. But Ben-Dov knows there is no magic cure. And he has learned that any advance, even the most infinitesimal, is cause for celebration.

Ben-Dov and other staff at the school are in the advanced stages of an extraordinary project: a unique musical playground in which every structure will help autistic children focus, stimulate their use of language and improve their use of movements. The park will be so appealing, says Ben-Dov, that normal children from all over will want to join their autistic peers at play.

Dr. Cory Shulman, a developmental psychologist at The Hebrew University’s Schools of Social Work and Education, has been involved with autistic children for decades.

“This is a wonderful population to work with,” she declares, “because without intervention it is difficult to help the autistic child. Yet with the correct intervention all of them can improve their communications skills.”

She stresses that autism doesn’t “go away,” but when the quality and essence of autism are understood autistic children can improve their skills and degree of function no matter how disabled they are to begin with.

Parents tend to wax poetic about their children’s progress. It made one wonder if, against all odds and reason, the child had suddenly become normal.

“Far from it,” admits Nathan’s dad, Joel. “It’s just that, even today, those brief and precious flashes when he is actually connecting with us are all too brief. We hug them to ourselves. And if he gives even a one-word response to what he needs, or feels – we call that fantastic progress!”

For more information call ALUT, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children: (03) 612-6120.

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