Stepping onto the porch of the small, tan house with bright red doors at Therapy Connections, the musical notes are immediately audible, giving rise to the notion something special is taking place inside. Within the walls of this unassuming, clapboard structure, music transforms the lives of children and families in the Coastal Bend daily.
“What we do here for kids is life-changing,” said Robin Palmer Blue, Therapy Connections of South Texas owner and executive director. “Through music, we address non-musical goals for children to help them with everything from verbal and non-verbal communication to focus, memory, sensory awareness, social interaction, motor function and cognition. We are much like the Pied Piper for kids. We create songs for everything and the kids follow along.”
Upon entering one of the two musical therapy rooms, it’s easy to see how the center’s therapists – equipped with their Pied Piper skills – would certainly have sway here. The room is replete with every instrument imaginable to pique a child’s interest – from a complete drum set to a keyboard, guitars, ukuleles, bells, a xylophone and maracas.
A musical magic of sorts takes place as children are given instruction set to music or are offered the chance to play an instrument as they master childhood songs such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “In the Jungle,” while simultaneously completing specific goal-oriented tasks.
“Each child we see is given an initial assessment and experiences a musical session,” said Blue, who opened Music Therapy Connections in 2008. “They are fully evaluated and a plan is designed to meet their individual needs. What we do as musical therapists is data-driven, and has been proven scientifically to be extremely effective. We see children who never respond to a single verbal request, but they respond to music.”
WATCHING TRANSFORMATIONS HAPPEN
Even though the concept of musical therapy dates back to 1500 B.C., according to the American Music Therapy Association, its value in modern times did not gain standing in the United States until after World War II when it was used – with great success – in VA hospitals for psychological and physical healing. It was not until the 1990s that it began to be used extensively for children with autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental issues, Down syndrome, ADHD and emotional issues including anxiety and depression.
“Although music exists in all cultures, science is just catching up with what we have seen all along,” Blue said. “We see daily what a difference music therapy makes for children. For example, we had one autistic young boy who would not talk, but he would sing. In school, he would not say the pledge of allegiance. So, we started singing it to him. Then he started singing with us, and eventually, he began saying the words; the transformation was amazing.”
Blue said – unlike spoken words – music has the ability to affect and stimulate all parts of the brain simultaneously. Music is processed in both hemispheres and taps into places in your brain that words are unable to reach.
“You can’t ignore music, your brain won’t let you,” she said. “We had a young boy in our practice who would fall on the floor and wouldn’t follow any instructions, at home or in therapy sessions. There were no words that made a difference; he was tuning us out. So, we started singing directions to him, and he immediately got up off the floor and followed every instruction; it significantly altered his behavior here and at home.”
At Therapy Connections, children are seen optimally once or twice weekly with sessions lasting from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on age and individual therapy goals. Typically, therapy plans are implemented for six months to two years. For kids with special needs, therapy is often ongoing, with an emphasis on mastering and sustaining objectives and a mindset of keeping sessions interesting and engaging.
“We like to change things up and allow kids to make choices when they come, especially kids with disabilities,” said Therapy Connections therapist Frank Castillo. “They often don’t have a lot of say about most things happening in their lives, so we try to give them a little more autonomy. If they are able to request a song or an instrument, and it fits with the skill we are working on, we let them choose.”
Most kids’ instrument of choice, according to therapist Kay Derostyne, who joined the Therapy Connections team in 2021, is unequivocally the keyboard.
“They immediately gravitate to it,” she said. “Once they realize they can change the sounds the keyboard makes, it becomes a whole new world. Even kids who are profoundly visually impaired can learn to play the keyboard. We place their hands on the keys and tell them whether the key under a specific finger is an A, C or an F. They keep their fingers on the keys, and every time we say that letter, they press that key. Seeing the smiles on their faces once they realize they are actually playing a favorite song … there’s nothing like it.”
Currently, Blue and her team offer services for children 15 months through high school, via the Driscoll Health Plan, the Rise School, Youth Empowerment Services for at-risk kids and enrichment programs at Ingleside ISD and the School of Science and Technology. As for the future sounds of music at Therapy Connections, Blue is set on expanding therapy services in the hopes of serving a larger portion of the population – something that would certainly be music to the ears of children and families throughout the Coastal Bend.
Contact: 3458 S Alameda St | 361-815-2433 | therapyconnectionsofsouthtexas.com