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Music Speaks Autism

Music Speaks Autism

Michelle and Dale have been teaching Suzuki Violin for 15 years. Parents of three sons, two with autism, they co-direct the Community Suzuki Music School in Chapel Hill, NC, where they specialize in the instruction of children on the spectrum. Their program, Music Speaks Autism, is the nation’s first instrumental music education program combining aspects of the Suzuki Method, ABA and DIR.

“He would stop banging his head into the wall and screaming … it was rather miraculous.”

-Michelle Chinn Canon

“The idea to teach music to children on the spectrum came as we watched how our youngest son, severely autistic, reacted when I practiced,” explains Michelle. “It didn’t matter how many hours I played, he would stay within about five feet of me. He would stop banging his head into the wall and screaming, would not bite himself, and his repetitive behaviors became less … it was rather miraculous.” We would also listen to recorded music together. He would sit quietly in my lap and cuddle, and not have any of the above-mentioned behaviors. So, we conducted an experiment. We took our little violins into the local AU preschool and taught for one year,” says Michelle. “It was amazing; many of the children learned just as quickly as our neurotypical students! Those children who rarely allowed others to touch them accepted our touch while we helped them to play the violin. One child danced and smiled — you had to see the teachers run for their cameras! It brought so much joy to the students, and, through music, we were able to accomplish joint attention, eye contact, relationship building — all the skills children with autism typically struggle with.”

Through music, we were able to accomplish joint attention, eye contact, relationship building…

“From our experience we were able to adapt aspects of ABA, DIR (Floortime) and the Suzuki Method to create an optimal musical learning environment for children on the spectrum. We use PECS to structure the lesson. After each song, bow hold, violin hold, the child takes the magnetic picture off of the white board. PECS is an amazing tool in our studio. It is such a JOY! Not only does musical study foster the development of life/adaptive skills (reciprocity, eye contact, joint attention, etc.), but playing an instrument becomes a way for the child with autism to excel — an area of giftedness.”

A fascinating new area of research!

In her Ph.D. program in Interdisciplinary Autism at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Michelle is studying the brain and how it is impacted by music – an area of research that may have tremendous implications for those with autism. For her dissertation, she hopes to investigate an area of the brain called the corpus callosum — the area that connects the right and left hemispheres. Michelle notes that fMRI studies show that this area is “over developed,”or has greater volume in instrumental musicians; studies also show this area to be “under developed,” or under connected (less volume) in children/adults with autism. “I hope to look at this area of the brain before music lessons and then one or two years after,” says Michelle. “What if musical study could ‘grow’ the corpus collosum in children with autism? Wouldn’t that be exciting?”

“It’s nice to know these practices have been scientifically proven with multiple studies!”

– Michelle Chinn Cannon

Michelle adds another bit of exciting news she recently learned about: The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders has outlined 24 evidence-based practices for working with/teaching children with autism, many of which are incorporated Music Speaks Autism’s teaching, including video modeling, PECS, time delay, prompting, reinforcement, peer-mediated instruction and intervention.

Visit the Music Speaks Autism website and Community Suzuki Music School website to learn more!

Remember, every child can learn!

-The underlying philosophy of the Suzuki Method