The Thinkers: Therapist is music to their ears

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It's time for the Flying Sock Monkeys to start practice. But first, the rock group has an important decision to make.

Where should they have their holiday party? Dave & Buster's, one suggests. Eat'n Park, says another. McDonald's, someone else says.

Any rock group can have its disagreements, but the challenge is even greater for the Flying Sock Monkeys, because each of the five band members has a high-functioning form of autism, which can make it hard for them to interact socially and to find a common ground.

Katie Harrill, the group's founder and a board-certified music therapist at Wesley Spectrum Services, lets the children work on the issue.

"Well, I have to say," the tallest boy in the group says, "Dave & Buster's, the last time I was there, the lights and the noise were very distracting ... I mean, I had to get out of there." The shortest boy in the group, meanwhile, doesn't seem to want to commit to any public place.

Eventually, Ms. Harrill suggests ordering pizza to be delivered to their Penn Hills classroom, and the Flying Sock Monkeys are satisfied.

She formed the group as part of her work at Wesley with up to 100 children with special needs in the region, many of whom are on the autism spectrum.

Kathleen Anne Harrill
  • Title: arts program coordinator and certified music therapist, Wesley Spectrum Services
  • Age: 34
  • Residence: Churchill
  • Education: Allegheny College, bachelor's degrees in music and psychology, 1996; board certification in music therapy, Duquesne University, 1998
  • Professional honors: Honors award for senior thesis at Allegheny College, "The Healing Power of Music."

While the rock group is limited to the higher-functioning children, her music therapy encompasses children of all abilities and diagnoses, from autism to Down syndrome to hormone imbalances.

She believes the improvement many of her children have shown in both academic and social ability provide "objective evidence" that music and rhythm have the power to reach these children in ways that other techniques can't.

"Music is intriguing and appealing to them," she said. "The kids gravitate toward music because of its intrinsic values. They can share the enjoyment of the music while actually engaging in a social experience."

Of course, those social experiences aren't always the kind you would find elsewhere.

When the Flying Sock Monkeys, who range in age from 9 to 17, first sat down to write the group's rules, Ms. Harrill said, "I'm thinking it will be, 'Respect each other,' 'Don't run out of the room crying,' 'Let's work together as a group,' -- that sort of thing. But some of them are very literal, so one rule was: 'Let's keep our clothes on.'

"So they're all coming from different places," she laughed.

Ms. Harrill earned a bachelor's degree in music and psychology at Allegheny College, and knew before she graduated that she wanted to be a music therapist. One indication: She wrote a 300-page senior thesis on music and healing.

She realizes that some scientists have been skeptical about music therapy because it doesn't have a long history of academic research behind it, but she said that is starting to change as neuroscientists increasingly investigate the connections between music and the brain's function.

Many music therapists base their approach on the "sensory integration" model developed by occupational therapist A. Jean Ayres several decades ago, which hypothesizes that the brains of children with autism have trouble filtering and interpreting signals from the environment and their own bodies.

Dorita Berger, a music therapy researcher based in Norwalk, Conn., suggested in an interview that autistic brains "are in a basic state of unconscious fear. In most if not all autistic children, many of the behaviors you see are classic fight or flight behaviors, where they're constantly in motion or agitated."

Underlying this is a part of the brain called the amygdala, which turns on whenever a person feels fear or stress.

Music can have a direct impact on the amygdala. Researcher Stefan Koelsch of the University of Sussex has shown with brain imaging that discordant music triggers action in the amygdala, while harmonious music does not.

Harmonious music and rhythm, Ms. Berger believes, "can calm the amygdala and distract the brain from the fear mode," and is one of the main reasons why music therapy can benefit children with autism.

Ms. Harrill agrees and says she uses her music to plug into children's moods and then shift them to a calmer or more focused state.

"If I'm working with a particular kid, and he comes in really upset, I'm going to match his mood with something that is lively and engaging, and get him to express himself and have some outlet for the distressing feelings, and then gradually bring him down lower.

"So I would start with movement, and then I would go to music making because it's a little more passive but you're still moving the body, and then we might do motions with scarves or a bean bag experience because of the tactile feel, and then ultimately get him to lie down and relax."

She created a similar arc in one recent music therapy class with the children, starting with lively rhythm sticks and a game involving a giant parachute, and eventually moving to playing peaceful piano music as the children sat on their carpet squares in the darkened room, watching as lights danced across the ceiling.

Ms. Harrill and her supervisor, Timothy Jones, assistant director of Wesley's Family & Child Development Center, said they would love someday to participate in formal research studies on music therapy.

In the meantime, though, she is busy creating lessons for her classes, working with children one-on-one, and finding places for the Flying Sock Monkeys to perform.

The group played at halftime for a recent Pittsburgh Colts minor-league football game.

"It was amazing," Ms. Harrill said. "The players came on the field, the cheerleaders were all over them. We did 'We Will Rock You' and the whole stadium was doing it."

The Flying Sock Monkeys also had their share of disagreements that day, but even that was a sign of progress.

"One of them said, 'You're standing in front of me, they can't see me!' -- and these are kids who normally hide and don't want anyone to see them."

Those interested in finding out more about the Wesley Spectrum Services music therapy program can contact 412-706-2547. Mark Roth can be reached at or 412-263-1130. First Published December 29, 2008 5:00 AM


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