'They Can Hear the Music, They Can Feel It, They Can Move To It'
Music and Dance Movement Therapy for Autism
“If we train people in the proper way, Dance Movement Therapy can have immense value,” says Aditi Bandyopadhyay. She is an accomplished Odissi dancer, a physician, and a medical faculty at West Bengal University of Health Sciences.
“Dance and movement therapy is a psycho-therapeutic process,” she elaborates, “It is a kind of counselling, and here your tools are dance and music.”
Amidst the rush of setting up online classes anew, Aditi Bandyopadhyay, finds time to have a conversation regarding the importance of Dance Movement Therapy for autistic children and adults.
“We work with people who have developmental challenges. Like autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy - those without any mobility issues,” she tells The Citizen. Bandyopadhyay co-founded the Samya Foundation based in West Bengal.
She has researched extensively on neurophysiology of autism. She also teaches Dance and Movement Therapy at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, where she teaches the Samya Module of DMT that she created.
“We use this therapy to bring these children to par with what we call ‘regular communication’, it cannot be brought in all at once,” she says, explaining that it is a gradual process.
“It helps in a big way - in terms of building up communication, awareness of space, and objects in their surroundings. Many times they are very unaware of what is going on, because they are absorbed in their own world.” In reality, however, she says the problem lies in not them being unaware, rather in us not being able to understand what is going on with them.
Bandyopadhyay explains that there are several types of Dance Movement Therapy - depending on the population that one is working with. She makes a point to state that “a background in psychology or social work helps. It doesn’t mean that you need to have a background in science.”
However, this changes when dealing with children who have special needs, she says. In this case there’s a minimum requirement for having some background in special needs, for “otherwise the person would not understand the disabilities,” she tells The Citizen.
“This is a very age-old concept, we know the therapeutic value of music. However, one cannot just be playing an instrument and call it dance movement therapy. You have to know the type of disability, and the population you are dealing with.”
As a medical practitioner, and single mother of a 13 year old boy with autism, Bandyopadhyay is particularly drawn to the subject - “The healing concept of music, I always felt should be learned and applied to people.” She says she was motivated towards dance movement therapy as a professional dancer, a medical professional, and as a mother.
She stresses that one of the key concepts at Samya Foundation is empowering mothers. “Mothers should get the adequate help required. DMT helps to ease the mind, both the person receiving it, and the facilitator.”
Samay Ajmera, a music therapist and life coach based in Mumbai, has clients ranging from all age groups. From 2 year old toddlers, to senior citizens. He explains the ‘iso principle’ in the study of music therapy.
He expounds, “when someone is feeling sad or anxious, it helps to play music that relates to sadness and anxiety, and then slowly transitions into something that is more happy, more relaxing. As opposed to quickly dumping happy music on someone who is feeling sad. It won’t work, it’s very contradictory,” he tells The Citizen.
According to Ajmera, despite music being an entirely accessible tool for therapy, it also needs to be used with careful attention. He says, “When someone is feeling sad (the children), they (the parents) tend to try and help their child by listening to happy music at that point - and that really doesn’t work. And this is something people do all over the world, but it really doesn’t work. You have to find out where they are emotionally.”
It is important to note, however, that these processes take time with different patients of different age groups. It would take a few attempts to identify what type of music a child would respond to, and how long it takes for them to calm down. Typically, he says that for calming or relaxing purposes, any music between 60 to 80 beats per minute is considered helpful.
Ajmera explains that when interacting with music, we all have certain natural tendencies. “When you’re listening to music, there’s a part of you that is already going to move naturally, without you thinking about moving. Your brain is processing the music, and then is anticipating what is going to happen next, and then you’re going to move. Your muscles also respond.”
He takes the example of an EDM concert, where everyone listening anticipates the ‘drop’ in the beat collectively. “Movement in general is a very natural reaction to music.”
“Music is one of the few things that stimulates the entire brain…. The way I work is a very active form of music therapy,” he shares. He says that when you speak with children on the disabilities spectrum, it is relatively easier for them to communicate via musical cues, rather than a normal verbal conversation.
Ajmera explains his technique when teaching young children with autism or other developmental delays. “We could be using familiar music, like maybe a lullaby, and then we would change up the lyrics, in order to help them learn certain words - and do something actionable after that …. It will not only help them learn the words, but also relate to what they mean.” He also points out that he often has to work closely with the speech therapist, if the client has one, in order to tailor his classes to the progress that has been made on their speech.
For any given session, Ajmera will come armed with at least 20 simple instruments, to gauge what the client is most comfortable with - “a couple of drums, a few melodic instruments like a xylophone, etc.” He starts with a conversation with the caretakers, followed by an assessment of what the needs of the child may be. “Not all kids want to play instruments, some of them want to do something else.”
Music therapy also helps with motor skills - he speaks of using rhythmic instruments, and how they help children in using their left and right hands in coordination. “We also take the musical history of a child - what music they have been listening to, what they like, etc. If they do not like it within the first minute, we change it.”
“They also stim a lot, to help with any anxiety that they are going through” says Ajmera, speaking of individuals on the spectrum. “You’ll see a lot of kids clap their hands a lot, or jump up and down a lot…They lack spatial awareness.”
Stimming refers to certain actions that they develop to self soothe or become more accustomed to the space they are in. “We convert that stimming into something meaningful. So music helps them on a multisensory level - they can hear it, they can feel it, they can move to it.”
In his experience of six years in the field as a consultant, Ajmera says it is a mixed bag of people when it comes to awareness. There are many clients who are referred to him through the clinics that he works with, as well as those parents who notice that their children love music, and believe that they can benefit from music therapy.
He says that for someone trying to become a music therapist, a basic knowledge of psychology is important, as is being adept in two instruments - the first being the voice, and the second being any other rhythmic instrument.
“There are a lot of kids who may be 7 or 8 years old, but mentally they are 3 or 4. So it really depends on where they are, in their journey,” Ajmera tells The Citizen, in talking about how he customises his classes for such a wide variety of students with varying degrees of special needs.
The study into how music and dance movement therapy can help individuals with developmental issues has been slow in advancing. “Special schools in the UK have integrated music and dance movement therapy into their curriculum,” says Bandyopadhyay.
However, as of a few years, the interest in a subject like DMT is slowly developing, she says. “Many youngsters are joining in big numbers - really, many. So the interest in Dance and Movement Therapy is there,” she is certain.