Class keeps kids in tune with life

Music lessons help autistic children build communication skills


Bonnie Gease gave each child a pair of red rhythm sticks.

Then she flipped on some music and said, "Hey, hey, let's all tap our sticks today."

In response, 3-year-old Timothy Bohon began to tap his sticks and move his body to the beat. Across the room, 2-year-old Samuel Scruggs held a pair of sticks in each hand. He appeared totally absorbed as he tapped an original ditty.

The activity was one of about a dozen, offered in a music class that the boys attend, which is designed for children who exhibit symptoms of autism, a developmental disability that results from a neurological disorder.

The class is free to the students and is offered through the Maryland Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit organization in Bel Air, that offers music training and experiences.

The parents of the participants say the class gives their children a place where they fit in.

"Bonnie's class is the best thing I have ever done for Samuel," said Lisa Scruggs, a parent of one of the participants. "It's a comfortable place for him where he doesn't stand out for doing something different," she said.

The program is a modified version of Music Together, an internationally recognized program that was founded in 1987 for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergartners. It is made up of 10 weeks of one-hour sessions, where parents and their children ages 3 to 12, participate in a series of musical activities, which may include singing, sign language, playing drums, tambourines or musical games.

Gease, a special-education teacher for Harford County, became involved with the program last year. At that time, the Forest Hill resident saw the potential for something more than just a typical music-education class.

Using her background in special education, Gease, 52, fine-tuned the program for autistic children after seeing the response the children in her public school classroom had to music.

"I noticed the children at school were always engaged when I used music," said Gease. "I would tell them to go to the circle, and they wouldn't move, but when I sang `hello everybody, it's time to go to circle' they would get up and go."

She designed the program to meet the needs of children who exhibit symptoms of autism such as use of gestures or pointing instead of words, aloofness, social anxieties, strange play, obsessive attachment to things, or oversensitive or under-active behavior.

It wasn't smooth sailing at first.

For example, the compact disc player had numbers on it, and one of her students wanted to sit and stare at the numbers.

"I had to let him look at a picture of numbers before class, and then again at the end of class," said Gease. "But in between that time he participated with the other children."

Also, because some of the children don't understand the words, Gease uses a Velcro picture board with pieces depicting pictures of each activity.

"The board shows the kids what to expect next," said Gease. "And after a song is completed, the Velcro piece is removed."

After spending the first 10 weeks learning through trial and error, the program, unique in Harford County, is growing. Gease attributes that to the growth of autism, which, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, now affects 1 in 166 children.

Parents are noticing a difference in their children.

"If I tell Samuel to pick up his room, he doesn't understand the words," said Scruggs. "But if I sing, "clean up, clean up," he cleans his room. Music is what Samuel, 2, is all about," said Scruggs, who lives in Edgewood.

When Scruggs enrolled her son in the program, he wandered around the classroom. She had doubts that he would ever be able to focus like other children his age. But then one day something clicked for Samuel. He began to follow along and do the activities. Her husband, also named Samuel, happened to be at the class that day, and he was so excited, said Scruggs.

"He was like, `Lisa why didn't you tell me he was doing all this stuff?'" Scruggs said.

"It's so difficult to have a 2-year-old that you can't communicate with," Scruggs said. "So when the children in the class go to music class and communicate, it's an amazing thing to see."

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