My Life as a Musical Sherlock Holmes

Today's last session was one where I was at a loss.

My child is 9 years old, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the pervasive level of involvement and with various and sundry psychiatric diagnoses. When I entered his classroom, he was curled up on the floor, screaming. I offered him his schedule card, and he walked with me, screaming all the way. We successfully retrieved his music card and headed towards the classroom door.

Once outside, he tried to pull me the opposite direction. When I told him we were going to the music room, he threw himself on the floor and kept screaming. He hit his head on the floor until I placed my foot between the floor and his scalp...then, he hit my foot a couple more times.

Eventually, he stood up and walked with me to the music room, still crying and screaming.

Once inside the room, he and I walked over to the window in the corner. I offered him the gathering drum (which he likes to sit on), and he sat. The screaming continued.

I pulled out my ocean drums and started echoing his sounds. He responded by pulling my hair. I stopped echoing and just kept going with the ocean drum. He laid his head on the drum and alternated between hitting the drum with his head and his hands. He started to calm.

He engaged in moving the ocean drum, occasionally hiccuping and crying. I considered this progress as we were no longer screaming. We got to the point where he calmed enough for me to sing questions.

"Do you hurt?"


"Where do you hurt?"

Pulled my hands to his head. This is his typical movement, but I thought I would try some deep pressure. I squeezed his head, shoulders, arms, and hands. He took a deep breath.

"Does your head hurt?"

He pulled my hands back. We sat with my hands on his head for about 5 minutes, just breathing and occasionally singing more questions. We walked back to class where he started screaming again. I passed on the message that he may have a headache (who wouldn't after head-banging on the floor?) and transitioned him back to his schedule. His crying was less than when I took him to the music room.

I often find myself in a place where I have to find out something about a person who uses alternate forms of communication. Many of my students are nonverbal and have learned to use off-putting behaviors to gain what they want. That is not allowed with me. You can scream as much as you can, but until you use your words, you will not get what you want. As soon as you start to communicate appropriately, you can gain what you need.

To find out information that I need to know and use in sessions, I often try sounds rather than words. With my child today, echoing his sounds was not what he needed. He needed less sound from me and more from the ocean drum. I offer sounds and look for changes in responses. I file those responses away in my brain file for future reference. Does the student appear to like this sound? Dislike it? Seem indifferent? Did this work before but isn't working now? Why or why not?

I have to be open to all possibilities, including the possibility that music is not the best way to interact.

I keep looking for the way into communication and relationship building with my students. Keep looking for the cues and clues that your clients show to you.


  1. Mary Lynn Bennett9:26 AM

    Hi Mary Jane,
    This sounds very much like one of my students with autism. I'm constantly trying to find sounds and music that will connect with him. Some days he just wants to hear the sound made by pushing a tubano drum back and forth with me. I try to sing to him to reflect what he might possibly be feeling/thinking depending on the day, and look for responses. He has words but rarely uses for spontaneous communication.
    In your log it does sound like he connected with you and your approach was helpful. It's always a downer, though when you return the student to their room and the behavior returns. We always hope for longer change or relief for the student.


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