Social skills

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

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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.”


The Impact Of Music

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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.”

Doug Flutie Scores With “The Social Express” For Autism Classes

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he Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism Partners with The Social Express

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism and The Social Express are partnering to donate computers and interactive social learning skills programs to schools with Autism classes.

The Social Express™, creators of new interactive social skills programs for special needs children, has partnered with The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism and donated copies of its program to schools who teach children with autism.

“We’re very proud to donate The Social Express learning program to The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism,” said Marc Zimmerman, CEO and Founder of The Language Express. “After using our program, teachers tell us that students are extremely receptive to its social skills lessons like ‘talking about what others like to talk about’ and ‘being part of the group’. Many ask to use the program everyday.“

Zimmerman added, “Educator feedback also tells us that The Social Express characters engage students so well, they’re able to begin learning tough social concepts. We’re excited to share the program with more schools!”

The importance of technology to enhance children’s learning in the classroom is widely accepted. For children with autism, laptop computers are especially helpful but are out of reach for many schools with autism specific classrooms.

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism has long recognized this fact. In 2000 the Laurie Flutie Computer Initiative was created for the purpose of donating computers to underprivileged families of individuals living with autism as well as to schools with autism-specific classrooms.

Chris Chirco, Program Director at the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, stated that, “The Flutie Foundation is excited to partner with The Social Express. Computer technology has become a key component in the education of many individuals with autism spectrum disorders and The Social Express offers a very visually stimulating and engaging interface that is sure to appeal to children on the autism spectrum. Learning social skills can be critical for an individual with autism to succeed independently.”

Computers are given to schools with autism-specific classrooms that could not otherwise afford to purchase them. To date the foundation has distributed close to 500 computers to families and schools in New York and New England.

In its initial phase, The Social Express is a 16-lesson interactive video-modeling social skills learning program. Parents, professionals, and educators of special needs children like the high-quality, Hollywood-style animation that holds their attention without over stimulation and the scenes that reinforce the best choices for kids to make in social situations.

Children with autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, and other social-emotional deficits find the characters engaging and many ask to use it every day. Learn more about The Social Express by visiting the website: 

About The Language Express, Inc.:

The Language Express™, founded by parents of autistic twins in 2008, is a privately held company based in Encinitas, California. The company develops The Social Express™ and other interactive social skills software and learning management systems. The company’s mission is to help special needs children with social-emotional deficits to improve their lives. The company’s video modeling social skills learning programs help children with ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s, and related disorders to improve their interactions with others. Visit the company at 

About The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism:

The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc. was established in 1998 by Doug Flutie and his wife, Laurie, in honor of their 20 year old son, Doug, Jr. who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. The Flutie Foundation’s mission is to support families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Foundation is committed to increasing awareness of the challenges of living with autism and helping families find resources to help address those challenges. We provide individuals with autism and their families an opportunity to improve their quality of life by funding educational, therapeutic, recreational and advocacy programs. For more information on The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, please contact Maria Baez at the Ebben Zall Group at (781) 449-3244, or visit

Meet Alex Olinkiewicz, Shelter Island’s Resident Authority on Asperger’s

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Island Profile: Young Author Explains Life With Asperger’s

Meet Alex Olinkiewicz. If you live on Shelter Island, you probably already know him, at least casually. But until you sit down and talk with him, you may know little of his warmth, charm, intelligence and his self-awareness about coping with Asperger’s syndrome and other peoples’ reactions to it.

The 21-year-old 2009 Shelter Island High School graduate has a subtle shyness about him that he somewhat masks with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Many of his classmates may have left the Island for college or jobs but you’re likely to find Alex often alone at home, hunched over a computer dealing with graphics, one of the many talents this young author possesses.

He shows off his pictures and personality in his just-published book, “In My Mind — A Journey Through My Life With Asperger’s/Autism,” which he will be discussing at book signing events on and off the Island in the coming weeks.

Alex will be talking about his book and signing copies on Saturday, August 18, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Dering Harbor Inn. The following Saturday, August 25, from 10 a.m. to noon, he’ll do the same at Claudio’s in Greenport; and on September 1, he’ll be at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor from 10 a.m. to noon.

The book was written with the cooperation of Islander Dr. Richard O’Connell, a retired guidance counselor and author, who spent two years recording sessions with Alex, having them transcribed and then working with him to organize his thoughts into the book, for which Alex created the graphics.

Unlike the scholarly tomes that have been written about autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Alex’s story is very personal and it paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be someone or have a family member who has Asperger’s.

The idea of a book started with a YouTube video Alex made when he was 16. The video got a few hundred hits and then, with promotion from YouTube, hundreds turned to thousands of views and finally more than a million.

Most online reactions to the video have been very positive, with only “a few jerks,” Alex said. “I mostly shrug them off,” while others online tend to answer those “jerks,” he said.

When he first tried to record his thoughts by talking into a tape recorder, it didn’t work, Alex said. That’s when he and Dr. O’Connell decided to record conversations as a means of drawing out Alex’s story.

“Realizing that people like me go through a lot of hell because we’re misunderstood, you have to wonder if there were a cure, would I take the antidote,” Alex says in the video. “The answer is no! I do not want to get rid of what makes me who I am. I don’t feel fully disabled. I will admit that I am sometimes disabled.

It’s what makes me different from everybody else. Why should I always want to be like everybody else?”

Still, when he’s angry, he admitted,   “I sometimes blame my disorder.” But generally, he said he thinks life might be “boring” without Asperger’s.

He does wish that society understood some of his needs. Just as people who can’t walk use wheelchairs and those who are blind have Braille, canes and guide dogs, he feels there should be at least something — if only an understanding in the culture of what his condition is all about — that would help him to cope.

Just knowing other people aren’t put off by what might seem peculiar or off-putting about his behavior would be a big help.

In today’s world, everyone sometimes experiences a sense of information overload. For someone with Asperger’s, that feeling is profoundly deepened. The world can seem a chaotic jumble to the Asperger’s patient because he or she is often overwhelmed by stimuli.

One way to cope with it all is to shut down. To the observer, someone with Asperger’s may appear to have flicked a switch that simply turns off the input, Alex said.

Alex sometimes hits his own hand to give himself focus on something other than all the outside stimuli. In particularly difficult situations, he’ll look down and refuse to acknowledge anything around him, he said.

He points to the part Dustin Hoffman played in the film “Rainman” about an autistic man. The actor would tap his head when he felt assaulted by sights and sounds around him.

Exactly how Asperger’s syndrome manifests itself will vary from person to person on the autism spectrum, Alex said. He explained his views using a pie chart: All human beings have various abilities that make up the pie. But a person who isn’t autistic has perhaps 15 percent of his pie devoted to social skills while someone who is autistic may have a only 3 or 4 percent of his pie dedicated to social skills.

“I’m very, very social, which is very unusual for people with Asperger’s,” Alex said. Still, he weighs his social skills at about a 12 compared with someone without Asperger’s who is likely to be a 15.

That social component results in an Asperger’s person sometimes being unable to understand others’ meanings, he said. But it has nothing to do with intelligence, a fact he demonstrates with his own conversation and other abilities.

He remembers when he was about 6 his parents were told he should be tested. After a battery of tests, his parents and doctors never used the words “autistic” or “Asperger’s” with him.

“They told me, ’Your mind works differently than others,’” he said. It was later at school that he heard the word “Asperger’s” applied to him and began to understand how it made his learning difficult.

“They tried their best to help me out,” he said about his teachers. He particularly credits teacher Robin Anderson, who worked with him throughout his schooling. “She became one of my first and closest friends,” he said. She helped him to improve his social skills and assisted with homework, he said. In many ways, Ms. Anderson paved the way for a less isolated experience at school than he would otherwise have had, he said.

Still, “School felt like a prison,” he said. But the last few years without school have been isolating, he added. It’s part of what led to the book because it gave him a goal, something on which he could focus.

“My Friend Has Asperger’s” Gives Kids A Look Inside Their Peers’ Interests

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Turning his world around: Robert, 9, who has Asperger's syndrome, with (back centre) author Amanda Curtis and his mother, Letizia Faba.

WHILE most boys are playing football during lunch time, Robert tends to walk around the perimeter of his school yard thinking about one of his favourite things.

The electronics fanatic also wears a beanie a lot, so he can pull it down around his eyes and ears to block out light and noise when it bothers him.

Robert, 9, has Asperger’s syndrome – a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that affects how his brain processes information. The condition means he lacks some social skills and finds it hard to read people’s facial expressions. He also has a heightened sense of sight and sound and focuses on particular things obsessively.

Like many unique children, Robert has been teased at school and left out of group activities because children don’t understand him. However, a new book designed to teach children about Asperger’s is starting to turn his world around.

His mother, Letizia Faba, said after the book, My friend has Asperger’s, was read at Robert’s school, his peers started focusing on his interests and strengths, rather than his weaknesses. The changes have been subtle – for example, one child offered him Pokemon cards because he knew Robert liked them – but for Ms Faba, these actions mark a shift.

”It’s fantastic, it has created interaction,” she said. ”Before that, I don’t think a lot of kids understood his differences.”

The book, which was sent with a letter to parents of other children at the school has also got them talking about Asperger’s, creating more support for Ms Faba and her family.

Amanda Curtis, author of the book and mother of an Asperger’s child, said she wrote it because her son was being rejected at school for hitting people, invading their space and talking too loudly.

”It broke my heart,” she said. ”They would move away from him, not hold his hand in line and tease him. He would come home saying that he was called a ‘freak’ or an ‘idiot’.”

In response, Ms Curtis, a qualified primary teacher, got together with psychologist Sophie Banfield to write a book detailing the characteristics of Asperger’s. It explains why children behave in certain ways and what can be done about it.

It also teaches children about the qualities Asperger’s can bring, including intense concentration, logical problem solving and attention to detail that helps some excel at particular things.

Ms Curtis, who is launching her book on Wednesday, said she hoped schools would adopt the book because it had had a dramatic impact on her son’s peers.

”The results were amazing,” she said. ”My son’s classmates changed from excluding and teasing him, to helping him pack up, playing with him and supporting him. The parents at the school finally understood what Asperger’s meant and now support me.”

Murray Dawson-Smith, head of Amaze, the peak body for autism disorders in Victoria, welcomed the book, saying there was a dearth of knowledge and understanding in the school system, which governments were working on.

”The book is a good resource,” he said. ”Anything that helps children have a better experience at school is a good investment.”

Operation Autism’s Kit For Kids

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With a rising presence of students with autism placed in general education settings, more attention is being focused on the interactions between these children and their typically developing peers.  It is well documented that even when students with autism are capable of handling the intellectual demands of a mainstream classroom, they often struggle to build and maintain social relationships.

A team of researchers in the United Kingdom assessed the social relationship experiences of nearly 100 students, ages 10 through 12, with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) as reported by parents, teachers, and the children themselves in a 2012 study.  This is a brief summary of their results:

  • About half of the students with an ASD and their teachers reported being “certainly true” that they had at least one good friend, while only one third of parents believed this to be the case.  These rates are lower than those reported not only by the general population, as well as by children who have special education needs but are not on the autism spectrum.
  • Three quarters of parents reported that their child with an ASD had experienced some degree of victimization, and 40 percent of students reported that they had felt excluded or rejected.  Both are higher rates than those reported by the general population.

These findings not only confirm what we already know about students with special needs being more vulnerable to social isolation, but they suggest that the social challenges associated with autism make students on the spectrum even bigger targets for bullying in the classroom and on the playground.

While the researchers advocate for social skills training and other behavior modification programs to help children with autism develop healthy and meaningful friendships, they also recommend that school communities initiate widespread anti-bullying efforts and educate professionals about autism.

In an effort to increase acceptance of differences and discourage harmful bullying, OAR’s Kit for Kids uses a peer-teaching model to help typically developing students learn about autism.  OAR is also in the process of creating a DVD that is designed to help general education teachers support students with autism.

To learn more about these resources or request a Kit for Kids, please contact Ben Kaufman, Director of Programs and Community Outreach, at 703-243-9762 or

Teacher On The Spectrum Is A True Role Model

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Autistic teacher praised for work with students

Click this link to view the video:

LEE COUNTY -The need is growing in Lee County schools for Autism-related classrooms and teachers.

Next year the school district is adding four new programs for exceptional education services at Heights Elementary, Tortuga Preserve Elementary, Harns Marsh Middle, and Challenger Middle.

Pre-Kindergarten teacher at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts in Lehigh Acres, 33-year-old Harold Price, did not have those types of services growing up.

Now, he teaches kids with developmental disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“They just learn differently, they may need a couple extra seconds,” Price said.

Price has Asperger’s Syndrome. He struggled with social skills growing up but was exceptionally smart according to his mother who is also a teacher, Marie Price.

“Harold learned to read very early, it’s not until he was speaking that I realized he knew how to read, that was before age 3,” Marie Price said.

Social skills were harder to grasp, but Price worked at it and eventually got his teaching license.

He also helped in his mother’s classroom at Veterans Park.

“You would think sometimes when he’s working with them, I would have already jumped in and given them the answer, he’s much better at waiting them out,” Marie said.

When an opening came up for a teacher at the school, principal Dale Houchin knew Harold would be the best fit.

“He isn’t here for anyone but the kids, he has their best interests at heart,” Houchin said.

With his personal and professional teaching materials, Harold shows his class the most important lesson he has learned.

“I do believe the kids in my class are going to be capable of a lot of things,” Harold said. “Just give us a chance, just because we learn differently doesn’t mean we are less capable.”