March 29, 2006
By Joy L. Rodgers
Speech-language pathologist John McCarthy and music therapist Kamile O'Donnell were each looking for a way to conduct research showing the benefits of music therapy in conjunction with other treatment. But a model didn't exist to show how the two professions could collaborate.
To find the answer, McCarthy and O'Donnell decided on a case-study approach using four children between the ages of 3 and 5 who could not use speech to communicate but had an interest in music.
"We were looking for children with widely different needs, skills, and priorities, so we could illustrate a range of possible ways that music therapists and speech-language therapists could work together," says McCarthy, director of Ohio University's Augmentative and Alternative Communication Laboratory and assistant professor of hearing, speech, and language sciences.
In the case of one 5-year-old boy with autism, McCarthy and O'Donnell are exploring a co-treatment model of music therapy and speech therapy to stimulate his interest in new activities. In the beginning, the child experienced great difficulties in communication and was prone to lash out – biting and hitting – when he was frustrated. He also had a short attention span, sometimes staying with a task for only 10 or 15 seconds.
But O'Donnell and McCarthy have found that when music is introduced to the child's sessions, he will engage in an activity for as long as 10 or 15 minutes. "As the study progressed, he demonstrated, not only in music therapy, but in speech-language therapy with John and in his classroom at school, a curiosity that we did not see before," says O'Donnell, assistant professor of music therapy.
Each child in the study favors a different kind of music and instrument, McCarthy says. But O'Donnell says she has found that different populations respond well to rhythm, especially hyperactive youngsters.
"There's something about the rhythm and steadiness of beat that keeps a child engaged and centered. If anything is universal about music, the rhythm and beat keep you organized and focused," says O'Donnell, adding that she uses a drum in every one of her sessions.
McCarthy and O'Donnell will continue to work to develop guidelines on how music and speech therapists can work in concert in providing treatment not only to children who have trouble communicating but also to adults. In November, they presented findings of their study at the annual meeting of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association in San Diego and the national conference of the American Music Therapy Association in Orlando.
The reason this study is so important for both disciplines, O'Donnell says, is because the researchers are developing models in which the therapists support each other's treatment, and this, in turn, results in improved and quicker outcomes for children with severe communication difficulties who respond to music. "Music helps bridge the gap by promoting engagement, allowing communication to occur," she says, "Co-treatment enhances this process."
Joy L. Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Florida. This article will appear in the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Perspectives magazine.