He could sing before he could speak – how music therapy can help people with disabilities

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Autistic man Michael Fry could sing before he could speak and credits music therapy with improving his communication skills.

Anthony Phelps / Stuff

Autistic man Michael Fry could sing before he could speak and credits music therapy with improving his communication skills.

Michael Fry could sing before he could speak.

The 30-year-old non-verbal autistic from Blenheim has used music therapy throughout his life to improve his communication skills.

“Michael loves music, he loves music, and so it was a positive thing to do with him,” said his mother, Glenys Fry.

“He could sing since he was about 2 years old, but he couldn’t speak, so a different part of the brain does the function of singing and does the function of speaking.”

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Michael started taking music therapy classes after school when he was 4 years old.

“Music was a vehicle to teach communication and for a long time it wasn’t verbal, and eventually it was,” Glenys said.

Michael's mother, Glenys, says he started taking music therapy lessons when he was 4 and it was a way to teach him how to communicate.

Anthony Phelps / Stuff

Michael’s mother, Glenys, says he started taking music therapy lessons when he was 4 and it was a way to teach him how to communicate.

“The skills were more things like taking turns, being observant of what was going on around you, and learning how to engage with other people.”

Dr Daphne Rickson is an Adjunct Professor at the New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī and taught Michael as a child.

“I started music therapy when my daughter was born profoundly deaf, I was really interested in how we could include her in family music and society music,” she said.

Rickson has discovered through his research that music therapy can help people with autism and disabilities improve their communication skills and well-being.

“The easiest way for people to understand is to think about the impact music has on all of our lives,” she said.

“There are very strong physical reactions to music, it’s very hard for us not to tap our feet or move when we hear music. There are many ways we know that music in our daily life affects us.”

Rickson published a text earlier this year, Music Therapy with Autistic Children in New Zealand: Haumanu ā-puoro mā ngā tamariki takiwātanga i Aotearoa, to help people understand the benefits of the practice.

“They were able to see how music therapy helped children regulate their emotions, communicate, relate to people,” she said.

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Naomi King, a 10-year-old from Christchurch who suffers from autism and anxiety, will represent New Zealand at the World Cheerleading Championships in Florida next year.

“In a nutshell, they said music therapy creates autism-friendly environments where children can thrive,” she said.

Rickson said she wants to see more funding available for music therapists to work with children with disabilities and autism.

National implementation of an Enabling Good Lives (EGL) approach to the provision of disability support services is a responsibility of Whaikaha, Disability Issues Minister Poto Williams said.

“The EGL approach will fundamentally change support services for people with disabilities, their families, whānau and communities, leading to better life outcomes for people with disabilities locally and nationally,” she said.

“Music therapy can be supported by individuals using their personal budget in areas where Enabling Good Lives prototypes are underway if prioritized by the person.”

Michael knows the theme songs to hundreds of movies, his mother says, and when he visits his grandmother in Nelson he is responsible for the music for the road trip there.

Anthony Phelps / Stuff

Michael knows the theme songs to hundreds of movies, his mother says, and when he visits his grandmother in Nelson he is responsible for the music for the road trip there.

Glenys said Michael knows the theme songs from hundreds of movies.

“When we go to Nelson to see his grandmother, he has a stack of CDs that he takes,” she said.

“He’s in charge of the music, and he puts it on and sings to it.”

Music Therapy Awareness Week runs from November 14-20.

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