Using Percussion to Improve Attention-to-Tasks in Children with Autism

Article excerpt

Imagine having a child who for no apparent reason stops communicating with you and begins to retreat into a world that you do not understand and are not a part of. Envision the confusion and fear your child is feeling as they enter this world. See in your mind's eye the plans you made and the dreams you had for your child forever altered. Such images are the faces of autism.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. Government statistics suggest the prevalent rate of autism is increasing 10 to 17 percent annually. Autism does not discriminate; it occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. It can impair a person's ability to communicate and relate to others, and symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe.

As a result of these dramatic increases, the ASD treatment field is rapidly evolving and there is a need for expanded and improved treatment options. Ways need to be found to assist individuals with ASD to communicate and control their environments for the purpose of improving their quality of life. In response to these needs, the Saint Francis University (SFU) Center of Excellence for Remote and Medically Under-Served Areas (CERMUSA) and the SFU Fine Arts and Occupational Therapy Departments collaborated with Cameo Physical and Occupational Therapy, LLC, a provider of contract rehabilitation services in Western Pennsylvania. Through this collaboration, rural occupational therapy practitioners (OTs) were trained, using live interactive video teleconferencing, on how to use percussion instruments and rhythm in the therapy of children with ASD. Techniques learned were then implemented by the OTs in schools across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in an effort to improve attention-to-tasks (length of time during which a person can concentrate on a subject or idea) behaviors in children with ASD. CERMUSA chose to pursue this avenue of study based upon documented research and clinical outcomes of the positive effects of percussion on a variety of clinical, psychological, and social disorders.


The reason rhythm is such a powerful tool for treating these conditions is that it permeates the entire brain. The human response to rhythm has been studied for centuries and rhythm is documented to have a far more influential effect upon us than previously believed. "Drumming synchronizes the frontal and lower areas of the brain, integrating nonverbal information from lower brain structures into the frontal cortex, producing feelings of insight, understanding, integration, certainty, conviction, and truth, which surpass ordinary understandings and tend to persist long after the experience, often providing foundational insights for religious and cultural traditions." Also, "the ability to access unconscious information through symbols and imagery facilitates psychological integration and a reintegration of self." There is documented evidence that "the sound of drumming generates dynamic neuronal connections in all parts of the brain even where there is significant damage or impairment such as in traumatic brain injury, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer Disease, and Attention Deficit Disorder." (6) Furthermore, drumming for even brief periods can actually change brain wave patterns, dramatically reducing stress.


Various studies have demonstrated that therapy which incorporates music can improve communication skills, imitation ability, and even social inclusion for children with autism.

According to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, music affects our neurological, psychological, and physical functioning in such areas as learning, language processing, emotional expression, memory, and physiological and motor responses. Therapy, in the form of musical interventions, has repeatedly been shown to improve the communication skills for children with autism. …


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