Father and Daughter with Autism Duet Brings Down the House

The idea for the family project came from the couple's desire to combine music, the psychology of music and counseling.

The idea for the family project came from the couple’s desire to combine music, the psychology of music and counseling.

by Sarah Tschiggfrie -

Barry Kolman wasn’t expecting the outpouring of emotion from the audience after he and his 13-year-old daughter, Emmanuela, finished their clarinet duet at the annual convention of the Virginia Counselors Association last November. Then again, Kolman did realize that it was no ordinary performance: Emmanuela has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“People were just floored because they had never seen a kid who has autism play the clarinet,” recalled Kolman. “Children with autism can play piano because it’s easier—you press a button and get a sound. But with the clarinet there are a lot of things going on at once, and kids with autism have a hard time doing more than one thing at a time. People came up to us afterwards with tears in their eyes to hug my daughter.”

Kolman is a professor of music at Washington and Lee University. His wife, Grace, is a counselor and a doctoral student in counseling and supervision at James Madison University. Along with Emmanuela—Mano, for short—the couple had attended the convention to present their paper, “Autism Spectrum: Emotional Regulation through Clarinet Lessons.” Attendees included guidance counselors and music therapists.

The paper resulted from their three-month investigation into how learning to play the clarinet affected Mano’s emotional behavior. In their presentation, Grace Kolman explained how music stimulated the neurons in Mano’s brain, while Barry Kolman described the lessons from his point of view as the teacher, and how learning to play affected Mano’s behavior.

The idea for the family project came from the couple’s desire to combine music, the psychology of music and counseling. “We were constantly talking about music and psychology, and music and the brain,” said Barry, “especially with Mano having autism. When you love your daughter as much as I do, you have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do with what I know?’ And I know that music heals. Perhaps with my music and Grace’s experience and knowledge of assessment and treatment, I could find the key to make Mano’s life easier.”

Mano’s musical studies began when the band director at her school invited her to play in the beginner’s band. She chose the clarinet, her father’s instrument.

Before, Mano felt excluded from groups at school, bullied and ridiculed. “Being chosen for the band was a big deal,” Barry explained. “Now she was part of a group and was wanted and needed. It gave her more confidence that she was not so different from everyone else. So that gave us the impetus to give her clarinet lessons at home to reinforce the band classes at school and to start this investigation.”

Barry stressed that, unlike most music therapy, his approach used music as a total experience. He did not take just one aspect, such as rhythm, to modify her behavior. “I knew this approach could produce results for Mano, but I was also interested in observing my own changes as a teacher,” he said.

On the autism spectrum, Mano is high-functioning, which means she can talk and express her feelings. Before learning the instrument, she often succumbed to emotional breakdowns and outbursts and couldn’t explain why. “She was very frustrated at school because nobody would play with her and she felt alone, so she would act out her frustration, especially on the weekends at home,” said Barry.

Now, post-music, “there is barely an outburst,” Barry said. “She is aware of her feelings and can stop herself from going there. There’s something in playing music that evened out her behavior and calmed her down a lot.” She has more confidence in school, not only in music but in other subjects as well, and is also speaking more English to express her feelings. (She came to the United States two years ago from her native Brazil.)

Mano also has short-term memory problems, forgetting what she had for lunch, her coat, her books and her homework. To remedy the situation, Barry gave Mano his own first clarinet, explaining that his father had given it to him and that it was a very special instrument. He told her to take care of it and bring it home every day. “That’s a big deal for someone who tends to forget,” said Barry. “But because I gave her that talk and because she was learning clarinet, she brought it back every single day. She never forgot the clarinet.”

The clarinet lessons also had an effect on Barry. Despite his bachelor’s degree in music education, “basically everything I learned in school I had to throw out of the window,” he said. “For example, I give private lessons to middle-school kids, and I’m used to saying maybe three commands in one sentence. Finger it this way, breath this way and tongue that way. And most children accept those three commands. But with Mano I couldn’t do that. I had to take really small baby steps and do one thing at a time.”

He also found that if he went beyond 20 minutes for a lesson, Mano would lose concentration. And lessons needed to be at a time when she wasn’t tired or easily distracted.

Read more at W&L Music Professor Eases Daughter’s Autism with Music.

[Via – Washington and Lee University]

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