Connecting through play and music

By Amy Pinder, MA, CCC-SLP

As a speech language pathologist, I work daily to support students with autism and other language learning challenges develop the skills and confidence required to communicate effectively. With over a decade of experience teaching this population I have come to realize that what matters most is the interaction itself. Activities are secondary. The gleam in a student’s eye is the way into their world. Expectedly, this “way in” varies greatly with each individual. However, I believe there are a variety of universally supportive and appealing themes and activities that can help us discover the best versions of ourselves and evoke the “gleam” within each of us. 

One of the ways I consistently find gleam in my students is through play. In working with them, I regularly incorporate joyful, regulatory, and play-based activities. Play provides a safe opportunity for learning and exploration across the lifespan, and inherently target a variety of visual-spatial, motor, language, social-emotional, and executive functioning skills. I encourage families to engage in play-based activities because there is extensive scientific literature detailing the benefits of play. According to a 2014 longitudinal study conducted by The PLAY Project, playful interactions increased caregiver and child relationships, improved social skills in children with autism, and reduced caregiver stress and depression. Additionally, play-based approaches are relatively inexpensive, intuitive, and easy to implement in comparison to other therapeutic options. 

Music is also engaging, accessible, and extremely beneficial. A literature review conducted by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) concluded that music is universally appealing and helps to promote social, emotional, and cognitive skills across many different disability categories. Music is widely accepted as an evidence-based therapy that successfully reduces stress, enhances memory and cognition, improves communication, strengthens sensory-processing, and diminishes maladaptive behaviors. Additionally, there is strong potential for communities with diverse needs and backgrounds to bond through shared musical experiences.

Incorporating play and music can look very different depending on the age, interests, and aptitudes of each individual child. Play might involve enacting scenes from a favorite video clip, using toys in conventional and unconventional ways, building forts, making up games based on a beloved character, or trying commercially available games and modifying/simplifying their rules. If you are not sure where to start, I suggest introducing classic toy items like hula hoops, jump ropes, and blocks and demonstrating how they can be used functionally (i.e. spinning a hula hoop around the arm or waist) or imaginatively (i.e. using a hula hoop as a spaceship). Oftentimes, children on the spectrum need to be shown how to initiate ideas in play, so demonstrating ideas is very helpful. Musical activities might include turning household items into instruments, creating dance sequences to favorite songs, or simply listening to a variety of musical styles during other activities to support mood and regulation. For example, meditative music can help with focus and attention while completing academic tasks. Upbeat music can lift the spirits and encourage silliness and exploration during play. 

Do your best to tune into things that excite your child. Try to create an environment that highlights their passions and supports their challenges. Most importantly, be patient and have fun!


About the Author:
Amy Pinder, MA, CCC-SLP is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist with over fifteen years of experience working with individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental differences across a variety of settings. Amy incorporates joyful, regulatory, and play-based mindful movement such as yoga and circus arts into her practice to encourage her clients to engage, explore, increase their capacities, and effectively communicate through meaningful, experienced-based activities. She is the founder of Circles of Communication, a private practice that offers integrative speech-language therapy and alternative education programs, the co-founder of Inclusion Festival, and the Executive Director of Accessible Festivals, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ensuring music and recreation is accessible to people of all abilities. 

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

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