Five Ideas For Using Music Therapeutically With Children Who Have Visual Impairments

I have the opportunity to work with many clients with visual impairments in the public schools. These children often enjoy music as a primary motivator and independently seek out music stimuli in their environment. In my work as a music therapist I am usually asked to find ways to help these children and their teachers use music stimuli more effectively to aid students in making progress on non-musical objectives. Many students who are singularly challenged with visual impairments pursue music in a traditional way as a hobby, leisure skill or career. We all know about the success and talent of people like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, etc., but how do we use music to connect with those children with multiple disabilities?

Children who have visual impairments or blindness combined with disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, Down and other syndromes present unique challenges for using music therapeutically. Traditional adaptations for learning music as a skill may not work with these children. Many of the children I work with may only be able to learn a very short rhythm or melodic sequence by rote and do not read braille due to cognitive impairments. These children also tend to have more acute sensory defensive behaviors towards objects in the environment. Therefore, I often employ music strategies to address non-musical objectives instead of trying to teach music as a skill.

Here are 5 ideas that can easily be used in the classroom:

1. Use braille for song card titles - I use song cards with a picture and title on the front and the lyrics for the song on the back of the card. These song cards facilitate choice-making since they can be presented in fields of 2 or more. Many children with disabilities have limited braille reading skills, but may be in a pre-braille learning stage. Simply having them feel the raised bumps on the top of a song card provides a concrete step in associating a card with a song. Very simple choices can be facilitated by providing one card for each hand. Some children with sensory defensive tendencies may be motivated to feel the braille while they are singing the song for the chosen song card.

2. Instrument playing for the sensory defensive - I have found a number of unique instruments to be more successful with students who are very sensory defensive to touch and textures. Students who recoil from almost anything else will often explore instruments like the African shekere, a cabasa, an ocean drum, and the guitar. The shekere and cabasa offer beads to feel with the cabasa also providing a cool, metallic feeling. The ocean drum has a gentle vibration that permeates through the smooth surface of the drum head as the drum is tilted slowly from side to side. A live guitar fills the air with sound vibrations and the smooth surface of the wood or the rough strings provide many options to explore as the music is playing. Many of the children I work with will try to strum the guitar strings in an attempt to help a song continue.

3. Movement to music - Spatial awareness is taken for granted by those with sight. Children with disabilities have a much more difficult time learning concepts for left and right, up and down, high and low, etc. Songs that use lyrics linked with memorable melodies can facilitate and motivate students to learn these concepts. I also try to choose music that intrinsically teaches concepts like up and down, or high and low, by using high and low notes for the appropriate actions.

4. Drumming - As I have previously mentioned, drumming can sometimes be very effective with children who are sensory defensive. Paddle drums or larger drums that provide more vibration are often good choices. Paddle drums can be used with mallets or played with your hands. In either situation, the vibrations will be passed through the drum handle to the drummer. Gathering drums are also good choices for drumming. They provide much vibrational feedback and can also be used to facilitate sharing and the idea of personal space when a group of children play on the same gathering drum.

5. Social skills - Most gestures as part of social interaction are visual in nature. Actions such as raising your hand, waving, smiling, hand shaking, etc., are difficult to teach to children who are blind. Action songs are a very good way to practice social gestures in a motivating environment where song lyrics can provide instructions and the rhythm and beat of the music can provide timing and structure to the movements.

Once again, music makes sense to use in a variety of settings with many different types of individuals!