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NewsNov 30, 2022

Using music therapy to help children on the autism spectrum

Assistant Professor Geoff Barnes ’11 shares two years of experiences in the classroom

Musical instruments in a pile, including a xylophone, tamborine and maracas

By Georgia Sparling

In the ongoing effort to better understand and communicate with children on the autism spectrum, Assistant Professor Geoff Barnes has found a key — music.

“People are literally moved by music,” he says. “That’s one of the first forms of communication when you know you’re reaching someone, when they respond in movement to the music.”

Barnes, who earned a PhD in Interdisciplinary Research in Music Therapy, Special Education, and Psychology from Lesley in 2011, spent two years as a music therapist working with young students who needed extensive educational and therapeutic supports.

Music Therapy With Preschool Children on the Autism Spectrum book cover - shows a man playing a guitar with a young child.
Assistant Professor Geoff Barnes's new book stems from two years of qualitative research he conducted with preschool children on the autism spectrum.

That experience and his subsequent research was recently published in his book “Music Therapy With Preschool Children on the Autism Spectrum: Moments of Meeting.”

‘Inch by inch’

The book focuses on Barnes’s interactions with a small group of students and how he connected with them through singing and instruments.

“These were students working on the most basic steps in communication and interaction,” he explains.

At the start of his research, a student named Dylan would put his head in his shirt when Barnes began playing music. By the end of Barnes’s two years with him, the boy progressed to playing instruments, vocalizing and even requesting songs by repeating their lyrics.

Another student, Emily, spent most of the first year observing Barnes only out of her peripheral vision. She was alert but didn’t want to interact. Eventually, though, she would sing a call and response with Barnes.

“In the grand scheme of life, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but to me it seems amazing that someone who started not wanting to interact was willing and able to do that back-and-forth duet,” he says.

Geoffrey Barnes headshot
Assistant Professor Geoff Barnes

Barnes emphasizes that this is an “inch by inch” approach.

“The music can offer a motivation and more than a motivation, it makes it possible for students to grab on to words,” he says.

It takes time and experimentation to figure out what will resonate with each child, and there is no magic bullet that will “fix” autism.

With his book, Barnes offers realistic and useful information for early childhood teachers, music therapists and parents to create musical bridges.

“I think the bottom line of this book is music can offer possibilities to young children on the spectrum for their growth and development,” he says. “If you do it right, it can be a way where you are tapping into the interests of young children.”