When Words Fail: Music Education for Children With Special Needs

When Words Fail: Music Education for Children With Special Needs
Have you ever heard Joni Mitchell warble on your record player and felt deeply understood? Have you ever listened to an aching cello fill a recital hall with Bach and realized fundamental truths about the world? Have you ever sat at a piano and been able to say things with your fingers moving deftly over the keys that you’d never be able to say normally? Music is a powerful tool for communication, allowing you to translate complex emotional states into sound waves and send them out into the world.
Music can be an especially powerful tool for those who are unable to communicate otherwise or who have some block that makes communicating difficult. 
There is growing evidence that teaching children with special needs how to play an instrument can be hugely beneficial in the development of their emotional, cognitive, social and physical skills, filling in gaps where traditional therapy or other programs fail. In fact, music therapy is now recognized by the New York State Education Department as a related service under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), meaning that music therapy is now a provided service for students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) via their school’s special education department.  
Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that music can drastically help children with ADD/ADHD and other attention disorders. One mother writes in ADDitude, an online ADHD and LD-focused magazine, that listening to and learning about music and learning to play a musical instrument was game-changing for her son, Brandon, who has ADHD, auditory processing, and other processing disorders, and whom she was told would probably not graduate from high school, let alone be able to function normally in society. Taking group music classes, incorporating musical “games” into his study habits for other classes, listening to music constantly, and doing a number of other music-based exercises, Brandon was able to concentrate and focus for longer, understand more and more complex problems, and eventually grow into a fully functioning adult with a college degree and a thriving career in the film business. 
And for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, music therapy can have dramatic results, aiding in speech-language acquisition, especially for “those who have the most difficulties following verbal commands, reading body languages and have deficits in social understanding,” according to Hayoung Lim, coordinator of the graduate music therapy program at Sam Houston State University. 
Music strengthens those areas of the brain that, in children with special needs, are generally weak, building auditory, visual/spatial and motor cortices and most importantly, giving them a non-verbal outlet to express themselves. It also allows children to feel a sense of accomplishment when they learn to play a song, or can participate in a musical call-and-response. And while it may sound corny, music truly does bring people together: taking group music lessons can foster much-needed social skills amongst kids who are normally separated from groups, and teach children how to take turns. 
So when words fail, there is always music.