Music therapy

The Power Of Silence

Posted on


Silence is symbolic for many on the Autism Spectrum; for many who are nonverbal, it is a literal interpretation.  The autism community as a whole was (once) viewed a silent minority hidden amongst the neurotypical populace.  We have only begun to understand, however, that the autistic and the neurotypical can, and must, coexist for the benefit of both.  Like the Chinese yin and yang, there must be a balance; this applies to music as well as autism.  To understand and appreciate autism, there must be an acceptance of it; an understanding of the neurotypical allows for an understanding of the autistic, and vice versa.  As explained below, music without silence, pause or punctuation, is simply unending cacophony.  Silence allows us to appreciate the sound. -Ed






Baroque instruments including hurdy gurdy, har...




There is one phrase I overuse to an almost criminal extent – “the power of music”. As a Nordoff Robbins music therapist, it is both my currency and an easily digestible sound-byte that trips off the tongue when I haven’t the time or inclination to explain what it is I actually do.



When music therapists talk about the ‘power’ music has, I think we are describing music’s inherent potential to connect us, to move us, to remind us who we are and to change the way we think and feel.



Everyone has an instinctive understanding of the language of music. Consequently, we can’t help but respond to it. As a (faintly embarrassed to admit) monolinguist, I find it pretty easy to ignore an overheard train conversation spoken in Spanish or Mandarin… yet if it’s in English I find it nigh on impossible not to earwig at least a little. So it is with the language of music; we all understand it, so when we hear it we can’t help but tune in.



Where did this innate, universal understanding come from? Well many would say that it is because we are all formed by music.



When we enter the world our primary relationship, usually with our mother, is fundamentally a musical one. There are the obvious musical tools – the lilting melody of her voice as she sings to calm us or her rhythmical rocking to lull us to sleep. But the musical nature of the relationship runs far deeper. In fact when trying to describe the nuances of how a mother and her baby interact with each other, child developmentalists such as Daniel Stern found that they constantly borrowed from musical terminology to do so; the rhythm of the interaction, the shifting dynamic range, a shared crescendo, and so on.



Even before that, our earliest experiences in the womb are essentially musical in nature. We hear the rhythm of our mother’s heart beat on average about 26 million times before we leave the safety of the womb. We experience and internalize the regular meter of her pulse, her breathing, her walking.



We also hear the melody of our mother’s voice. Or to be specific, we hear the melody, and we hear the silence when it stops. Many now consider this ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ creates our first meaningful experience of ourselves – of something being with us, then, through silence, absent.



I’ve recently found myself considering this relationship between music and silence in music therapy, which has been prompted by David Hendy’s excellent Radio 4 series, Noise: A Human History. In this week’s episode, in which he focused on humanity’s affiliation with silence, Hendy said that ‘in a world full of noise, the value of silence is rocketing’.



As a Londoner who spent 10 years living under the Heathrow flight path I know all too well what he means. But his insight reminded me that we take silence for granted at our peril. Indeed I believe that the source of the ‘power’ of music is, to a large extent, the power of silence. It is the silence before, after or during a musical experience that articulates and structures that experience, and in doing so helps us to make sense of it.



So silence, perhaps counter-intuitively, is one of the most powerful tools in a music therapist’s armory. Because through the journey from silence into music and back again, comes meaning. And often our job as music therapists is to help clients find a balance between the two; for example with clients on the autistic spectrum.



Much of the original work that Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins did when formulating their approach to music therapy was with autistic children. Today, 50 years on, the range of client groups whose lives are transformed by the charity that bears their name has expanded enormously. However, at the Nordoff Robbins music therapy centre in London where I work we still see a lot of children and adults with ASD.



Commonly, these children develop repetitive, self-isolating cycles or patterns to create order and sense from what can be for them an incomprehensible, orderless world. So often they will come in to the music therapy room, find an instrument to play and soon get stuck or lost in one of these repetitive patterns – endlessly playing up and down the xylophone or beating a drum, unable or unwilling to stop; perhaps for fear that in the silence the incoherence of the ‘real’ world will return.



One of our tasks as therapists in this situation is to make that silence bearable. To use it to punctuate the music we make together, in order to make our musical connection meaningful and understandable. In doing so, we can then offer a pathway out of isolation to be able to communicate in a slightly more endurable world outside.



Silence in music therapy, as in life, can take on many qualities. It can be oppressive or mutual, uncomfortable or soothing. I often find in music therapy with verbal adults that when a long musical improvisation ends it is very difficult to come straight back ‘into words’. Here an instinctive shared silence – sometimes of as long as a minute, can act as a de-compression chamber allowing us time to return from the intimacy of spontaneous shared music-making back into the realm of words and interpretation.



Many who go to classical music concerts will recognize that instinct in the couple of seconds’ silence between the music ending and applause starting. It brings audience and musicians together in a moment of shared, intimate stillness, reminding us that what was experienced individually was also experienced together. And again it acts as a transition back into the wider world. That is of course unless some idiot ruins the silence with a self-agrandising ‘bravo’ before the final note has even ended.



So really when we talk about the power of music, perhaps we have in mind the eternal dance between music and silence, one framing the other to create meaning that is unique to each of us, spoken in a language that is universal.




She’s In The Band: Gaining Confidence And Social Skills Through Music

Posted on


13-year-old Mano Kolman and her father, Barry, prepare to play a clarinet duet together.

13-year-old Mano Kolman and her father, Barry, prepare to play a clarinet duet together.

(CNN) — A few weeks ago, Emmanuela Kolman brought home her middle-school report card. She got an A in band, and her parents couldn’t be prouder.

Any parent would be pleased by an A. But for 13-year-old Emmanuela, who goes by Mano, that A in band is a symbol. It represents eight months of hard work, a collection of new skills, and, most importantly, a complete turnaround in Mano’s social and academic life.

Mano has high-functioning autism. That means she walks and talks a little differently than other kids, her parents say, and she’s “painfully aware” of these differences. Some students at her Staunton, Virginia, middle school treat her “as someone who is not very cool,” said her father, Barry.

Mano has few friends and frequently eats lunch by herself. She sometimes comes home crying because of teasing. She also experiences sudden outbursts of anger and frustration.

Luckily, Mano has the dream team of parents on her side. Barry is a clarinetist and music professor at Washington and Lee University. Her mother, Grace, is a counselor working toward her Ph.D. in counseling and supervision at James Madison University. Last summer they were trying to come up with a strategy to help Mano deal with some of the bullying problems at school and decided to attempt an experiment: Barry would start giving her clarinet lessons.

Why did they think music would help? There were a variety of reasons, from emotional to scientific.

Her father thought it would help Mano “channel her frustration through music.” Her mother was interested in the neuroscience behind how the brain deals with music.

“We cannot prove anything, but there are many studies that say how the brain can change when you do music-making … the part of the brain that wasn’t working very well has to find another way to work.”

This is your brain on music

The dream team: Mano with her dad, a music professor, and mom, a counselor
The dream team: Mano with her dad, a music professor, and mom, a counselor

Plus, they both desperately wanted to give Mano a social outlet and help her become part of a group.

So they began. Barry had taught clarinet to other kids Mano’s age but never someone with autism. He immediately learned he would have to adjust his teaching style.

The first lesson, they spent 30 minutes just putting the instrument together.

“With autism, you really need to do one thing at a time,” he said. “In music, you usually give about four or five commands per sentence, but for children with autism, you just can’t do that. They kind of freeze; they don’t know what to do first. So I had to kind of slow down.”

He learned to speak Mano’s language, too. When she described the different kinds of notes on a page of sheet music as looking like different types of chocolate — dark or white — he went with it.

“There are so many things just to get a note, all this coordination, which is very important in Mano’s case,” he said, explaining that it’s sometimes difficult for children with autism to perform several tasks at the same time.

But once she got it, Mano took to the clarinet “like a duck to water.” Her parents noticed changes in her almost right away. It’s been less than a year since she started playing and already, they say, her speech has improved and she’s more focused in school, which has led to better grades.

Although neither of Mano’s parents is technically a music therapist, data published in the Journal of Music Therapy backs up their observations. A 2005 study showed that people with autism who participated in music therapy for a year improved by at least 25% in one of five areas of focus, including behavior/psychosocial and language/communication.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, which publishes the journal, “Research supports connections between speech and singing, rhythm and motor behavior, memory for song and memory for academic material, and overall ability of preferred music to enhance mood, attention and behavior to optimize the student’s ability to learn and interact.”

Everything I need to know, I learned in music class

But by far the biggest change the Kolmans have seen has been the improvement in Mano’s social life.

“Playing music can soothe the pain of isolation and provide a safe space where she is accepted,” said Barry.

Before, Mano wasn’t part of a group. Now she has the band. Her parents can tell from the way she brags about being a member that it’s made a world of difference.

Mano’s mother cried as she described how being part of the band has affected Mano — and the whole family.

“I wanted her to have an experience where she would feel good about herself — that the bullying would be so small in the world that she would not fill herself with anger,” she said. “And this was a big change. I think the way she’s dealing with bullying now is much different. She’s not coming home crying as before. It’s such a relief.”

Barry keeps a journal about the results of teaching Mano clarinet, and he’s posted suggested lesson plans for children with autism on his website. The Kolmans, who have spoken and written about their experience (including on CNN iReport) so that others can benefit, say they’ve received dozens of e-mails from parents of children with autism.

They’re planning to write a book or manual about their method, and they presented a paper, titled “Autism Spectrum: Emotional Regulation through Clarinet Lessons,” at last year’s Virginia Counselors Association convention.

As for Mano, she just loves to play in the band. When asked about the experience of taking clarinet lessons from her dad, she replied, simply, “He’s the best.”

Rapping With Autism

Posted on Updated on


At 21, Rio Wyles still displays all the classic signs of autism.

Click this link to view the video:

He avoids eye contact with a stranger who tries to initiate a conversation with him, and seems eager to run away from the situation. It’s an expected reaction because autism is strongly associated with social, verbal and nonverbal communication problems.

Rio Wyles is a rapper with autism who performs with the Performing Arts Studio West. The group is doing an original musical featuring classic rock songs reinterpreted and performed by people with development disabilities.
The PASW studio is in Inglewood. 

But then the young Playa del Rey resident puts on his black sunglasses, grabs a microphone and, suddenly, he turns into Soulshocka – an ambitious rapper who “reps” Venice Beach for more “street cred. ”

“I started rapping when I was 8 or 9,” Rio says as he sits on a couch in an Inglewood recording studio.

“I was at Tower Records. The first song I really heard was ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer. ”

The recording studio is part of Performing Arts Studio West, an entertainment company that caters to adults with developmental disabilities, including Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and others.

Rio has been part of the company for the past two years and is prepping to perform in its May 3 show “Recovered” at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance.

The founder of the company, John Paizis, has been an adult special education teacher since 1980. In his spare time, he also was an entertainer and realized great benefits could come from combining the two, especially for those with autism.

“Being able to look somebody in the eye and effectively communicate is super important for these guys,” Paizis said.

His entertainment company puts performers into situations “where the curriculum kind of forces them to do that by doing acting scenes where they need to have eye contact with people, where they need to vocalize, where they need to be heard. ”

The company offers a variety of classes, including singing, song writing, music production, dance and all styles of acting. And each offers something different.

Students with the Performing Arts Studio West rock to a rap version of “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin.


For example, Paizis said, dancing helps autistic adults learnbody language and how to become more aware of how much space their body takes up. Music lets them see a sequence of events that ends with a finished product.

“Music classes are fabulous for them,” Paizis said. “And a lot of the population has a proclivity toward music since they were kids, especially some of our high functioning kids – so communication, body language, being able to put their best foot forward in any kind of social situation, that really helps. ”

Video: Soulshocka performs “Yonkers”

Rio knew he wanted to be a rapper since the time he was about age 4. In fact, after he was diagnosed at 3 years old, a doctor at UCLA told his parents to find something he enjoys doing and to let him follow that path.

“Fortunately for us, he loved music, and so music is his way back into the world,” said Rio’s father, David Wyles.

Since finding his passion, Wyles said, Rio has become more comfortable with other people and with himself.

He writes his own raps, drawing inspiration from his diagnosis and writing lines like: “Who’s the guy on the short bus causing a fuss?” And another: “The doc said I couldn’t do it, but now they have to face the music. ”

He performed an original song at the United Nations Headquarters for World Autism Awareness Day earlier this month, as well as at a March benefit for Autism Speaks at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.

Rio Wyles is a rapper with autism who performs with the Performing Arts Studio West.


But despite his willingness to perform for autism organizations, he said he’s trying to stay away from it.

“He wants to be known as a rapper and not an autistic rapper,” said his dad. “And that’s true. He is a rapper first and foremost, and autism is the back story. ”

In a striking moment, when asked where Rio would be today if he hadn’t found music as a young boy, his father softly says “lost. ”

Rio, on the other hand, is more blunt.

“I’d either be in a group home, or … yeah,” he said. “Music has the potential of getting me out of the hole. So pretty much, it got me out of the grind. ”

And he doesn’t plan to stop.

One day the family was returning home from a doctor’s appointment where they learned Rio might not mature any further.

When they stopped at a record store to browse, Rio’s mom asked him if he would like to work there someday.

“No, I want to be a rapper and own my own label,” he said. “You gotta dream bigger than that Mom. ” @stephiecary on Twitter

Want to go?

What: Performing Arts Studio West presents an original musical featuring performers with developmental disabilities.

When: 8 p.m. Friday May 3

Where: James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance

Information: Tickets are $25. Call 310-674-1346 , Ext. 202, or go to

Music Therapy At Molloy College’s Rebecca Center

Posted on

We have seen first-hand the great work at the Rebecca Center; Mike was enrolled in music therapy sessions there years ago, and did really well; able to participate with therapists and peers.  I think it also lay the ground work for his appreciation (both likes and dislikes) of music.  Music therapy rocks! -Ed


Molloy College researchers involved in an international study testing music therapy as a communication tool for children with autism are looking for participants.

The Rebecca Center for Music Therapy, a clinic and training program on the Rockville Centre campus, is the only place in the United States participating in the collaborative study, which this week enters its second phase.

The trial, said to be the largest to explore a non-drug therapy for autism, includes sites in seven other countries: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel, Italy, South Korea and Norway.

Autism therapy study seeks participants

To be considered for the study, children must be between 4 and 7 years old with an autism diagnosis and have had little or no music therapy.

The study, funded with a $2.5 million grant from the Research Council of Norway and in-kind donations from the sites, is expected to include more than 300 children around the world.

“There’s emerging research now that shows music can increase a child’s ability to socialize, engage and relate,” said John A. Carpente, the study’s U.S. site manager and founder-executive director of the Rebecca Center. “These are the core deficits of autism.”

Autism spectrum disorders, known as ASDs, are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Children diagnosed with autism often have difficulty making eye contact, pointing at an object or beginning or sustaining interaction with others.

With improvisational music therapy, the child is given an instrument, often a drum or other percussion instrument, which he or she uses to relate or “speak” with a therapist.

On a recent afternoon at the Rebecca Center, Arielle Goldman, 9, of Bellmore, who is on the autism spectrum, used a drum in such an exercise.

For the first 15 minutes of her session, Arielle stood apart from her therapist, clinging to the wall of a music therapy room. Eventually, she was persuaded to sit at a drum set.

Her therapist played a blues tune on the piano. Arielle, holding drumsticks, was expressionless and did not move.

But when the therapist stopped playing, Arielle began banging on the drum. When the therapist started playing again, Arielle stopped. She was clearly waiting for her next cue.

Their “conversation” with the instruments went on for several minutes.

Several smaller studies have been done on the efficacy of music therapy as an early intervention for autism, but nothing of this scope and size, Carpente said.

“The most important remaining challenge is to demonstrate generalized effects of music therapy – to what extent children are able to transfer the acquired skills to new situations and environments – and how many sessions are needed to achieve this important goal,” Christian Gold, the study’s lead researcher, said in an email interview from Norway.

Gold, a professor of the Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Center of the University of Bergen, said he and others want to build on a 2006 Cochrane Collaboration review published by John Wiley & Sons that found music therapy worked better than a placebo with respect to verbal and gestural communicative skills.

The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in every 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder – a prevalence figure that is rising.

Music therapy has gained in popularity over the past decade as a treatment for children with autism, said Al Bumanis, spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association, a Maryland-based professional organization representing about 4,000 practicing music therapists.

“Parents discover that music does hold their interest and intrigue the kids,” Bumanis said.

Music Therapy and Autism

Posted on

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.-VICTOR HUGO

Music happens to be an art form that transcends language.-HERBIE HANCOCK

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.-ALDOUS HUXLEY

Music is well said to be the speech of angels.-THOMAS CARLYLE

Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.-WILLIAM CONGREVE


Improving behaviour in children with autism [research]

Weekly music therapy sessions lasting just an hour can have a positive effect on behaviour in children with autism, reports a paper in Pertanika Journal this month. In a study of 41 children, improvements were seen particularly in inattentive behaviours over a ten month period. The researchers hope that their research will help children and young adults with autism to modify behaviour.

US Centers for Disease Control statistics state that one in every 150 children in United States is diagnosed with autism — that is one new diagnosis in every 20 minutes. And the number is on the increase. Music and movement therapy has been used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages. interventions can be designed to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation.

C M See of the Universiti Sains Malaysia divided the group into two age categories — two to ten and eleven to twenty two — and rated their behaviour on a target behaviour checklist developed specifically for the research. Over a ten month period they alternated two different hour-long sessions of music therapy and measured the children on the target behaviour checklist on a monthly basis. For behaviours such as restlessness, aggression toward other children, noisiness and tantrums more than half of each group improved by one or two points on the scale.

Some children showed no changes and a couple regressed. Overall the research suggests that the therapy has positive effects on the children’s behaviours, but particularly with inattentive behaviour.

The Impact Of Music

Posted on

When you think about how many school districts start to cut music programs due to budgetary constraints, you really don’t think it has that much of an effect on students on the Autism Spectrum, especially when compared to the more ‘traditional’ services they tend to receive: Speech, OT/PT, etc.  But this study shows a real correlation to how music therapy really has an impact on autistic students: impacting socialization, motor skills, tolerance levels toward non-preferred activities, etc.  Bottom line: support your local music programs; it will go a long way. -Ed


Autism and Music Therapy

Music therapy has become an integral part of many programs for children with autism. The broad category of music therapy is generally described as interventions that seek to teach individual skills or goals through music. Music therapists use their training as musicians, clinicians, and researchers to effect changes in cognitive, physical, communication, social, and emotional skills. According to theNational Autistic Society, “Music therapy aims to encourage increased self-awareness/self-other awareness, leading to more overt social interactions. The therapy stimulates and develops the communicative use of voice and pre-verbal dialogue with another, establishing meaning and relationship to underpin language development. The client may also benefit from increased tolerance of sound, tolerance of and capacity for two-way communication, the opportunity to exercise joint attention, and other emotional needs met in the therapeutic process.”

Research Autism reports strong positive evidence from peer-reviewed journals that support the effectiveness of music therapy for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Based on the literature to date, music therapy has shown good effects in influencing joint attention, social interaction, verbal and gestural communication and behavior. It is considered to be a useful intervention, particularly with young children, and where language acquisition is either delayed or disordered to a severe degree. Supporters of music therapy emphasize that it can be used to develop social engagement, joint attention, communication abilities, while also addressing emotional needs and quality of life.

A study published in the journal Autism provides further support for the effectiveness of music therapy with ASD. This study investigated the social-motivational aspects of musical interaction between the child and the therapist in improvisational music therapy by measuring emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness in children with autism during joint engagement episodes. Improvisational music therapy is an individualized intervention that facilitates moment-by-moment motivational and interpersonal responses in children with autism. Compared with other therapeutic interventions utilizing music as a background or contingent stimulus, improvisational music therapy involves the interactive use of live music for engaging clients to meet their therapeutic needs. It is gaining growing recognition as an effective intervention addressing fundamental levels of spontaneous self-expression, emotional communication and social engagement for individuals with a wide range of developmental disorders.


This randomized controlled exploratory study employed a single subject comparison design in two different conditions (improvisational music therapy versus toy play sessions) and two different parts of a session (an undirected/child-led part versus a more directed/therapist-led part) in each condition. The objective was to compare the effects of these two different media (music versus toys) and to determine how children respond in a musical context with or without direction, compared with a non-musical context such as play activities with toys with or without direction.

Participants and Procedure

Participants were children aged between 3 and 5 who were not previously treated with either music therapy or play therapy. A total of ten children (all male) completed the clinical trials. Five children were non-verbal while the other five were verbal with varying degrees of language skills. Eight children were in preschool special education, and two were in mainstream preschool programs that included additional therapeutic supports, such as speech language therapy. The children were randomly assigned either to have the music therapy sessions first and the toy play sessions later (group 1), or vice versa (group 2). In order to differentiate the media used in these two conditions, the therapists in music therapy were instructed to interact with the child mainly through music, whereas the therapists in the toy play condition were instructed to engage the child by any means, but to avoid any musical media, such as singing or rhythmic playing.

Observed behaviors were recorded in terms of both their frequency and their duration for two broad categories. The first category concerned the participant’s emotional and motivational responsiveness (joy, emotional synchronicity, initiation of engagement) towards different types of attunement promoted by the therapist in these two conditions. The second category concerned two different types of responsiveness towards the therapist’s initiation of interaction (social invitation and interpersonal demands). Joy referred to an event when the child either smiled (facial expression duration only), or laughed (facial expression with vocal sound) during the interaction with the therapist. Emotional synchronicity referred to an event when the child and the therapist shared a moment of emotional affect duration (happiness or sadness) while engaged with each other. Initiation of engagement referred to an event where the child spontaneously initiated interaction with the therapist, or initiated a change during ongoing interaction, and then expected the therapist to follow.

Results and Discussion

Improvisational music therapy produced markedly more and longer events of joy, emotional synchronicity and initiation of engagement behaviors in the children than toy play sessions. In response to the therapist’s interpersonal demands, ‘compliant (positive) responses’ were observed more in music therapy than in toy play sessions, and ‘no responses’ were twice as frequent in toy play sessions as in music therapy. In the music therapy condition, there were more joy, emotional synchronicity and initiation of engagement events in the undirected part than the directed part, suggesting that children were happier, more able to express their happy emotions and more able to share their affects with the therapist when leading. These results suggest that musical attunement enhances musical-emotional communication together with joy and emotional synchronicity, which results in children’s spontaneous willingness to respond, initiate and engage further.

According to the authors, “The temporal structure of music and the specific use of musical attunement in improvisational music therapy suggests that we can help children with autism experience and develop affective skills in a social context.” Creating music relates to the child’s expression, interest and focus of attention may evoke responses from the child to a therapist creating such relational music for them. Moreover, improvising music together is an emotionally engaging process. Music can be an attractive medium, allowing the child his/her own space and the choice of objects, at the same time engaging the child with different objects of the therapist’s choice.

Of course, this “exploratory” study has limitations. For example, the small sample makes any generalizable conclusion premature. The test power is low and should be considered when interpreting the results. Likewise, the small sample limits the relevance of subgroup analyses (language, age, severity) as well as therapists’ effects which would be helpful to understanding how children with different developmental needs respond to this type of intervention different therapists.


In conclusion, the results of this exploratory study found significant evidence supporting the value of music therapy in promoting social, emotional and motivational development in children with autism. The findings highlight the importance of social-motivational aspects of musical interaction between the child and the therapist, the therapeutic potential of such aspects in improvisational music therapy, and the relative value of less directed and more child centered approaches for children with autism. The authors conclude, “Both previous and the current study indicate that we should use music within the child’s focus of attention, behavioral cue and interests, whether it is improvised or precomposed. A future study should perhaps look at the differential effect on response of improvised and precomposed music with young children with autism.”

Drumming To A Rhythm All His Own

Posted on


Ian Engelsman, 12, plays the drums in his family's home in Vancouver on Thursday. Ian plays as a form of therapy for his autism.

Ask Ian Engelsman his musical inspirations, and he’ll give you an earful.

Dokken, Slaughter, Skid Row and Twisted Sister. White Lion, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and, his mother’s favorite, Pink Floyd. He doesn’t care much for The Who. And, did you know, nearly all of the songs on The Outfield‘s album featuring their hit, “Your Love,” are only about 3 minutes long?

Ask Ian about his bright blue Ludwig drum set, and he’ll explain the different types of drums. Snare. Bass. Toms.

That instrument on a stand next to him? That’s a cowbell. And the copper-spun cymbals, those are noisy percussion instruments, Ian points out.

“Playing the drums is kind of like my thing,” Ian says simply.

Five years ago, Ian didn’t speak — not even about drums. He didn’t look people in the eye. And he surely didn’t twirl drumsticks between his fingers after freestyling for visitors.


Ian is autistic, and but not for the drums, his parents say, he would still be exhibiting the behavior that made him an isolated, muted child.

“The drums, they’re like our lifeline,” said Claudia Engelsman, Ian’s mother.

Looking back, the drums have always been Ian’s “thing,” his parents said.

At age 4 — not long after receiving the autism diagnosis — Ian was like many children his age, banging on pots and pans he pulled out of kitchen cupboards, said his dad, David Engelsman.

But about three years ago, Ian started playing with other items he found in the kitchen. He retrieved empty jars and bottles, turned coffee cans upside down and wrapped paper plates in tinfoil.

Then, he played music.

“He had rhythm,” said Claudia, who studied music and played the guitar.

She bought Ian a set of cheap toy drums from the drugstore. Ian fastened his makeshift instruments to the set and kept playing.

“I told David, ‘There is something here,'” Claudia said.

That Christmas, Santa brought 9-year-old Ian his first real drum set. After that, Claudia started looking for music classes for Ian. But as soon as she mentioned her son’s autism, doors shut, she said.

“It’s the leprosy of the 21st century,” she said.

But then Claudia found Musical Beginnings in Orchards, not far from their Vancouver home. They welcomed Ian — and his autism.

After 10 minutes of playing, Ian’s teacher was pulling other teachers in to hear the 9-year-old beat on the drums.

“They said, ‘He’s a natural,'” Claudia said.

From there, Ian began to flourish.

Ian’s coordination improved. He was no longer bumping into things. He could color inside the lines.

He began talking without being prompted. He became focused. He gained self confidence.

The music classes — coupled with a school program Claudia fought hard for, one tailored to Ian’s needs — resulted in more success.

Ian stopped running from his parents. His violent episodes dissipated. His IQ jumped from 76 to 130. He earned awards, musical and academic. And two years ago, Ian learned he no longer needed occupational and physical therapy.

The drums are his therapy.

“He said, ‘Don’t ever take away the drums,'” Claudia said of Ian’s psychologist.

Ian’s success hasn’t been limited to his behavior.

Since picking up his first set of drumsticks, Ian’s playing has drawn the attention of others.

Just a few months after he began drum lessons, Ian decided to participate in his school’s talent show. He took first place.

After the talent show, the Silver Star Elementary School band teacher asked Ian to join the band.

“It was so rewarding,” Claudia said.

Since then, the offers have continued for Ian. He was given a solo act in his first recital. Middle school band teachers ushered him into their classes. And he’ll play drums with a band in the upcoming Portland Rose Festival.

The praise and recognition have helped to balance the countless times Ian was told “no,” the times he was ostracized, criticized and judged, Claudia said.

Now people are taking notice of Ian, not for his disability but his ability.

“You have no idea how many times he’s been rejected,” Claudia said. “But now, the drums have opened, maybe not other doors, but doors that offer opportunities.”