The Arts In Mental Health – Article For Arts Professional July 08

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Isabel Jones uses an eight-step programme to communicate with people on the autistic spectrum.

Musical messages

People with autism experience difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication and find it hard to form relationships and temper their language, thoughts and behaviour in a way seen as ‘the norm’. Their educational and social needs are complex. Andy Sloan, Deputy Head of Rosehill School in Nottingham for children and young adults on the autistic spectrum approached Salamanda Tandem for new ways to help his pupils access the confusing world around them. Salamanda Tandem has developed a therapeutic arts method called ‘musical interaction’ which Isabel Jones first pioneered in the early 1980s.

Musical interaction is a combination of singing, music, movement and improvisation. The ‘partner’ is observed to see what they are interested in – it could be a toy, movement, or pattern –this is incorporated into song or play to capture their imagination. Getting onto the wavelength of a person with autism takes time and effort, but once you have used your own creativity to unite with them, the most unhappy or troubled individuals will start to open up. At Rosehill, one of the first pupils I worked with was 11 year old Paul. I’d first encountered Paul a year earlier in his previous school and he was obviously unhappy; he never talked to or played with the other children and he used to pace up and down repeatedly at the edge of the room.

When I entered the classroom for the first time I sat at one end of the table, and he at the other. Paul leant over a little toy bear and didn’t look up. The bear made a laughing sound he liked, but when the sound stopped he became very distressed. So I began by tapping my fingers slowly towards him and then stopped. I’d start again, get faster and closer, and then stopped again. I then sang an improvised tune that matched the rhythm of my tapping. Every now and again he’d look up to see what I was doing, and when he did I’d do something else interesting, like dance my hands towards him. Paul watched me for two whole minutes, which was a turning point because no one had seen him freely focus on a human being for that long before. He then threw the bear to me and our interaction began. After five days of workshops like this, Paul began to communicate with me – intangibly at first – but I’d repeat things back to him and he began to respond. All the tension left his body and it was amazing. Paul was a funny and intelligent boy but there was so much anxiety that had to come out. The musical interaction gave him the opportunity - and a voice.

I worked with autism academic Nick Hodge, to shape an eight-step programme called ‘P.A.R.T.N.E.R.S’. The steps are: Preparing; Assessing; Responding; Timing; New Directions; Empathy and Equal Exchange; Releasing and Settling Back. A selection of carers, parents, and teaching staff are learning the programme, so they can help more pupils in need. Andy Sloan said: “When you are working with these children everyday and getting no response, it is really hard to stay motivated and positive. Isabel and her team have helped us make a breakthrough, and we are all keen to take it forward – and have actually built a special arts space to enable us to do so. It’s all about tuning in to the person with autism and communicating in a way they understand and enjoy, whilst not expecting them to change to meet our needs. It’s us that need to change – not them.”

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