In Beijing, a Music Therapy School strikes chord, giving boost to Autistic Children

A music therapy school is giving a boost to children with learning difficulties.

A music therapy school is giving a boost to children with learning difficulties.  A pretty voice can be heard as teenage girl stands confidently in front of the class and starts to sing: “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd/lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.” It is not long before the rest of the class begins to yodel, joining her with the chorus to The Lonely Goatherd.

Generations of children have learned the song from The Sound of Music. The students in this rented room at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing are teenagers with autism and other intellectual disabilities. They gather for a few hours every Sunday morning, for pain lessons, dancing and singing.  Their music teacher, Jiang Dufang, says, “I always pick easy, happy songs for them. The whole point is to get everyone involved and to enjoy it.”

The lessons serve not only enjoyment, but they serve as therapy to stimulate mental development. Former principal of a high school affiliated with the conservatory, Yu Huigeng, founded the program 12 years ago. The program started in 1984 and Yu, 88, was struck by the remarkable progress of children who had taken part in a pilot scheme.  Following up 10 years later with 30 toddlers, who had no musical background, at a kindergarten where she had organized pitch training and 18 months of violin lessons, she found most of them excelled at their studies. “These cases reinforced my belief that music could produce a noticeable influence on the development of children,” she says.

Feng Cong, a boy suffering from brain damage had the most extraordinary results. He was drooling when his mother took him to Yu’s violin class, he was unable to extend three fingers on his left hand and his head flopped to one side. But, he was able to play some simple tunes on the instrument within six months. She was delighted to learn when Yu visited his family in 1999, that Feng was doing well in his school; he was later even accepted to study psychology at university. Parents began coming to Yu for help with children who had developmental disabilities when Feng’s story spread.  Yu approached the Central Conservatory of Music in 2001, and proposed a music therapy program.  There was a growing need to help children with disabilities, particularly those with autism.

In the past decade, China has seen a sharp rise in the number of youngsters with autism. The China Philanthropy Research Institute (CPRI) said on April 2, World Autism Day last year, there were about 1.64 million autistic children on the mainland.  Most were cared for by parent-run organizations with only 10 per cent received any form of therapy at hospitals or other government facilities. Given free use of seven classrooms initially Yu had more than 100 children enrolled. Among them was Wang Bocheng, who is autistic.

Upon her request, Zhou Lin, a researcher at the Psychology Institute under the Chinese Academy of  Sciences, repeated a cognitive test he had conducted at other schools on her students. She enrolled 70 children aged between 10 and 12 years old.  Zhou’s test establish that students at her music school outperformed their peers.  Admission to her school was highly competitive and her students were likely to do better than others, but Yu was still not sure.  She was finally convinced by the results from her kindergarten trial and so the music therapy program was launched.

After the central conservatory was renovated in 2010, the program lost the use of all seven classrooms. There were worries the autistic children might damage the new facilities and nobody wanted to offer a space to Yu.  The conservatory’s trade union agreed to let Yu use a 40 square meter hall and their gym. Many parents stopped taking their children to the program due to the limited space. Including Bocheng, twelve children stayed. “My son does not want to miss a class here,” Zhu says. “We parents are also here to be encouraged by Yu.”

 A girl shouts at the top of her voice and boy suddenly leaves his chair and stomps off.  The rest of the class, continues singing, unbothered.  Yu says, “These kids are often looked down on in society. They are extremely sensitive to criticism. We are here to help them restore self-esteem. Their parents also live under great stress. They think they are the most unfortunate parents. If they don’t have help, they can pass this negative attitude on to their children.”  Yu tries to encourage parents in the unheated corridor outside the classroom.  “Remember, there is only one spot inside your child’s brain that has gone wrong. The rest of it is absolutely fine,” she says. “Things will change if you do not give up.”

For more information on autism therapy, please visit http://www.icare4autism.org/news/category/autism-therapy/

 Photo credit: Simon Song

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