Class keeps autistic kids in tune with their lives

Music helps them improve their communication skills


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

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

In response, Timothy Bohon, 3, began to tap his sticks and move to the beat. Across the room, Samuel Scruggs, 2, held a pair of sticks. 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 and is offered through the Maryland Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit organization in Bel Air, that offers musical 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 parent Lisa Scruggs. "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 comprises 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 and playing drums, tambourines or musical games.

Gease, a special education teacher in 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.

Gease, 52, fine-tuned the program for autistic children after seeing the response her pupils had to music.

"I noticed the children at school were always engaged when I used music," Gease said. "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 have symptoms of autism such as: use of gestures or pointing instead of words, aloofness, social anxieties, strange play, obsessive attachment to things, or over-sensitive or under-active behavior.

It wasn't smooth sailing at first.

For example, the CD player had numbers on it, and one of her pupils 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," Gease said. "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," Gease said. "And after a song is completed, the Velcro piece is removed."

After spending the first 10 weeks learning through trial and error, the program 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 one 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," Scruggs said. "But if I sing, "clean up, clean up," he cleans his room. Music is what Samuel 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 be able to focus like other children. Then something clicked for Samuel. He began to follow along and do the activities. Her husband, also named Samuel, was in the class that day, and he was so excited, Scruggs said.

"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."

Timothy's mother, Beth Bohon, agreed. After months of taking Timothy to music classes, Bohon, 38, grew weary of having to remove her son from the class before it was over.

"The class was too advanced," the Fallston resident said. "While the other students listened to the instructor, Timothy was walking around the room."

Although Timothy was diagnosed with developmental delays, Gease, who teaches Timothy at school, thought he might benefit from the music program.

"Timothy pays attention most of the time, and he imitates what the teacher does," Bohon said. "It's so great to see him enjoy it."

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