Our experience with Therapeutic Listening as autism therapy

Amanda Broadfoot

When I first heard about therapeutic listening, I was very dubious. I didn't understand how wearing headphones and listening to weird sounds was going to do anything except seriously tick Billy off. Having completed the program now, we still can't conclusively say that his gains were specifically because of therapeutic listening, but I would call myself a tentative believer. My husband, Dave, for the record, is still skeptical.

There are few therapies associated with autism, though, where you can draw a direct correlation between what you do, and changes in behavior. If we change Billy's diet and see an immediate derailment into tantrum-land, we sometimes start blaming it on something he ate. He could also, though, be tired, have taken an irrational dislike to the neighbor's cat, which keeps showing up in our yard, or have a headache. Until he can really talk to us about what's going on in his head, we just give it our best guess.

The same thing is true about good behavior and gains in communication. We want so much to believe that any particular therapy is working. Or, I should say, I do. Dave is comfortable in the permanent: "It's baloney ‘till they prove to me otherwise" skeptic’s position.

So we look for a few things in any therapy. First, do no harm. We have to know that there's no downside before we try something. Second, does he enjoy it? We believe strongly in following his joy -- to the point that it does no harm. (He can find joy in riding his inflatable spaceship down the steep staircase, but we do have to draw the line somewhere.) Finally, where's the science? We want to see a recent, reputable scientific study, with real data -- which I then hand off to Dave to read.

Therapeutic Listening® passed our test. The aim of this therapy is to help autistic kids, with underdeveloped nervous systems, differentiate the human voice from other noises in their environment. Based on what Dave explained to me -- and I could have some of this wrong; I majored in English lit and creative writing and I sometimes, admittedly, tune out when he's talking about science --this specially filtered music with the specially designed headphones, help build up certain muscles in the ear, whose primary purpose is to recognize the human voice.

You have to find a therapist trained in Therapeutic Listening to administer the therapy. You have to buy the special headphones; we ordered ours from Vital Sounds for about $145. You need a portable CD player with a “random play” mode and the ability to turn off the bass. There are about a dozen different CDs, ranging in themes from animal sounds to kid songs to Mozart; special sounds and clicks have been added to each one. If an adult, with a fully developed nervous system, tried to listen to them, they can make you feel slightly dizzy or even nauseous. I got an immediate headache after about a minute of listening to "Mozart for Modulation."

But Billy didn't. He liked some CDs better than others, but on the whole, he didn't mind sitting down twice a day for 30 minute sessions of "headphone time". Our OT let us rent the CDs for $10 a pop, (if you buy them, each costs about $40) and each CD would last us about two weeks. Billy hated the one with dolphin sounds on it, (who wouldn't? that was two weeks of hell!) but loved "Peach Jamz", which has a series of upbeat kid songs to which he'd sing along. We worked in one 30-minute session before school, usually while he was eating breakfast, and one after school.

Kids are allowed to eat, ride in the car, or play with toys while listening. They can't watch TV or really interact with anything with bright flashing lights or loud sounds. Ideally, he would walk around and play while listening, but we could never get him to wear the fanny pack into which the CD player inserts, so he mostly just sat and looked at books or played with table toys.

At the beginning of this therapy, he wouldn't even allow the headphones to touch his head. By the end of the series, he had no problem with headphones -- but he still has strong resistance to hair washing, brushing or cutting. He has become much more verbal over the past six months, and his potty training has made significant strides. Six months ago we were at our wits end with the tantrums, and he had also just started head-banging, which was alarming to say the least. Now, that is extremely rare. His connections to people are much stronger, and his eye contact is much better. He said, "I love you, Mama" to me for the first time in December, and he is more likely to look at someone when he's talking to them. Whether he looks up when we call his name is still a crap shoot, but its better.

** BUT ** (And I want to put this BUT in bright neon letters!!) Therapeutic Listening is NOT the only therapy we've been doing; far from it. We are committed to Floortime, regular occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy and Kindermusik. And I can't overstate the importance of going to school and learning from his peers and teachers. He attends pre-Kindergarten five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and he loves it.

Now that we've finished the Therapeutic Listening series, our occupational therapist has recommended we purchase the CD Billy really likes -- "Peach Jamz" -- and continue on a two-week on, two-week off schedule. Apparently, the nervous system can get too used to one CD if you listen to it every day.

We're thinking about it. We want to see if there are any changes in his behavior when we stop doing Therapeutic Listening for a while. If so, we may pick it back up in a month. I would love to hear from any other families who’ve tried this therapy. It's only by sharing stories with one another that we can really figure out what works for our special children.

Courtesy of Parenting Special Needs Magazine

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