Special Needs, Developmental Disabilities and Music Therapy

Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  For many children and adults with special needs or developmental disabilities, music is their language!

In the video below, I talk about a few of the ways I use Music Therapy for developmental disabilities.

Music Therapy for Developmental Disabilities

Music can be especially helpful in so many ways for individuals with Developmental Disabilities:

  • Transitioning from one activity to the next…from one life situation to another
  • Increasing social skills and quality of life
  • Creating an ability to learn how to “take turns”

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) suggests a number of other benefits of Music Therapy for people with Developmental Disabilities:

  • Developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships…establishing/reestablishing interpersonal relationships
  • Increasing social interactions
  • Fulfilling basic needs
  • Developing a positive sense of self
  • Dispelling pathological behavior
  • Increasing social competency…the individual’s perceptions about social behavior
  • Developing an awareness, a sensitivity to the beauty of music and using it to enhance all of the above

There are so ways music therapy can improve life skills:

  • Increase sensory-motor skills
  • Improve expressive-receptive language skills
  • Increase cognitive skills
  • Increase problem solving skills
  • Improve social skills
  • Improve auditory and visual-motor skills
  • Increase impulse control
  • Increase the ability to identify and communicate feelings appropriately
  • Improve self-esteem and self-control


  • Create a simple, predictable song for a daily skill (like brushing teeth). Young children love this type of activity (“Clean Up, Clean Up, Everybody Help Cleanup”), and adults can benefit as well.
  • Have them drum along with a tune you either sing or play (on a guitar, piano, recorder, etc.) l- ike The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
  • Work with them to create their own simple tune…perhaps on a xylophone.
  • Sing together a familiar song (like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or Michael Row the Boat Ashore).
  • Together, learn a new song…perhaps about American culture. My Home’s in Montana is a fun one about the American Old West!

2017 Summer Music Therapy Group for Kids!

2017.04 Pediatric Music Therapy Group Flier-page-001ANNOUNCING OUR 2017 SUMMER PEDIATRIC GROUP!

Kim is again partnering with Carla Carnegie to hold a special summer Music Therapy group for kids with special needs! This Music Therapy session is a social setting where children are supported in the following areas:

  • Cognitive: Increasing attention & focus
  • Psycho-social: In the music, learning appropriate social behaviors
  • Emotional: Self-expression, regulation of emotions
  • Physical: Music and movement strengthening gross and fine motor movements encouraging use of the whole body
  • Communication: Singing to increase language accessibility.

When: Fridays 1:30-2:15pm or 2:15-3:00pm from June 30th to August 4th

Where: Willow Song MT Center in Otis Orchards

Cost: $225/person (sibling discounts available)

Limited scholarships are available. 

Register: Register by June 5th to carla.carnegie@gmail.com or 509-592-7875

Click here to download the flyer for more details!

Autism Awareness Month – How Music Therapy Can Help

ribbon-largeDo you know someone who is on the Autism Spectrum? Most of us do! Did you know that Music Therapy is a highly effective way of working with children, teens & adults with Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication, social interaction and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities (DSM-5). The National Autism Center has identified Music Therapy as an emerging intervention.

Music is a very basic human response, spanning all degrees of ability and disability. Music Therapists meet clients where they are at and help them to grow from there. The structure and sensory input inherent in music promotes relaxation, learning, and self-expression; addresses multiple developmental issues simultaneously; provides success-oriented opportunities; and, of course, music is motivating and enjoyable!

Research and statistics from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) report that many individuals with ASD respond positively to music. People with ASD frequently show a heightened interest and response to music, making it an outstanding therapeutic tool for working with them.

Through peer-reviewed journals inside the profession (such as the Journal of Music Therapy and Music Therapy Perspectives) as well as many detailed articles in journals outside the profession, AMTA has promoted much research exploring the benefits of music therapy with individuals with diagnoses on the autism spectrum. AMTA’s clinical studies focused primarily on the use of music to address Communication Cognition Behaviors, Social Skills, and Interaction Emotional Regulation. (AMTA, 2008)

The following examples are only some of the clinically proven outcomes of AMTA’s research:

  • Music captures and helps maintain attention. It is highly motivating and may be used as a natural reinforcing agent for desired responses. It provides a bridge in a non-threatening setting.
  • Music therapy can stimulate individuals to reduce negative responses and increase participation in more appropriate and socially acceptable ways.
  • Music therapy can help those without verbal language skills to communicate, participate, and express themselves nonverbally but still positively. Very often music therapy also assists in the development of verbal communication, speech, and language skills.

  • Music therapy helps individuals with ASD identify and appropriately express their emotions.

  • Music Therapy provides concrete, multi-sensory stimulation. The rhythmic component of music is very organizing for the sensory systems of individuals diagnosed with autism.
  • Musical elements and structures provide a sense of security and familiarity in a clinical Music Therapy setting.
  • Many people with ASD have innate musical talents. Therefore, clinical Music Therapy provides an opportunity for successful experiences.

Do you want to learn more about how Music Therapy could help your loved one or student who is on the Autism Spectrum? Contact me for a consultation!

Depression – How Music Therapy Can Help

It seems that every time we turn on the television, open a newspaper or magazine, or look on the internet, we find evidence of the prevalence of depression. Sad to say, it is a common diagnosis these days, both for adults and children. Of course, on these media outlets we also find many examples of “pills” that purport to help alleviate depression. And, some of them likely work on occasion…but, what about all those side effects?!

all shook upAs a Board Certified Music Therapist and holding certification and licenses in Mental Health Counseling and Music Psychotherapy, I want to suggest that Music Psychotherapy can offer a positive and actionable alternative to “popping a pill” if you (or your child) are exhibiting symptoms of depression.

So, what are the symptoms of depression? The Mayo Clinic includes the following in its definition:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies, or sports
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
  • Changes in appetite — often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased cravings for food and weight gain in some people
  • Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
  • Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures, or blaming yourself for things that aren’t your responsibility
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

The Mayo staff goes on to say, “For many people with depression, symptoms usually are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities or relationships with others. Other people may feel generally miserable or unhappy without really knowing why.”

The statistics on teenage suicide rates are particularly staggering and indicate that looking at “alternative therapies” are very well worth examining. Yes, it’s a lot to take in and, although for some these feelings may be short-lived, for many they are issues that are with them on a continuous basis.

Music Therapy targets the psycho-social domain while also concentrating on the emotional and spiritual aspects of the individual. It is proven to improve mood and decrease anxiety and depression while increasing social interaction…something that generally alleviates depression. Music Therapy lights up the entire brain and, as a nonverbal medium, frequently makes it easier for the depressed individual to become engaged…to find success-oriented opportunities.Where taking medication may provide immediate but often temporary relief, Music Therapy arouses and activates motivation for participation in long-term recovery.

Music Psychotherapists like me specialize just like psychologists do. We use music therapy, filled with joy and metaphor, to assist clients in transferring their emotions, thoughts, and feelings onto the music and rhythm while engaging in the therapeutic process. The client is focused on the music/rhythm, not on the therapist. The music can reach beyond the client’s conscious mind…frequently beyond words.

It’s important to know that using Music Therapy with depressed patients is not simply “playing music”.  And, it’s not about performance or gaining musical skill. It’s about using rhythm, melody, and breath de-escalate stress related behavior and to allow the client to move beyond a depressed state towards a state of comfort and healing.

What is Music Therapy and Why Does it Matter?

stock-photo-16845502-musical-therapyThe American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines Music Therapy as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Sounds complicated…well, it’s not! The AMTA goes on to say that Music Therapy can accomplish the following goals:

  • Promote Wellness
  • Manage Stress
  • Alleviate Pain
  • Express Feelings
  • Enhance Memory
  • Improve Communication
  • Promote Physical Rehabilitation

Music Therapy can be an integral element in accomplishing these things for:

  • Military populations and others suffering from PTSD and physical injuries
  • Children and Adults with:
    • Autism
    • Alzheimer’s Disease
    • Confinement in correctional facilities
    • Responses to crisis and trauma
    • Pain—Both Physical and Mental
    • Sensory Disorders

Music Therapy treatment is gaining acceptance in the U.S. and around the world. But, why does it work and why does it matter? Spokane’s The Arc suggests that working with music is useful in treating ASD and ADHD (autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) by increasing brain fiber connections. A study was recently conducted in Mexico to see what effect music has on the brain of children. Pilar Dies-Suarez, M.D., a chief radiologist in Mexico City and the lead author of the study, says: “Experiencing music at an early age can contribute to better brain development, optimizing the creation and establishment or neural networks, and stimulating the existing brain tracts.”

This research shows once again how Music Therapy can improve brain development in a variety of people. Dr. Dies-Suarez’s study shows how receiving musical instruction tells the brain to complete tasks that involve hearing, motor, cognitive, emotional, and social skills. ALL these areas of the brain become activated and connections between the two hemispheres of the brain occur.

In other words, and as you’ve heard me say before…Music making in the context of a therapeutic relationship is the ONLY human endeavor that lights up the ENTIRE brain! It can create changes in the brain that can address multiple developmental and physical issues simultaneously. It arouses, activates, and encourages motivation for participation in recovery.

Kim McMillin

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Board Certified Music Therapist
I am passionate about helping others to find the goodness within them and to heal the barriers that prevent them from embracing the Light of Goodness inside. Each of us comes into this world as a magnificent Sun. What often trips us up is that we learn to identify with the clouds -- ugly things...

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