Masking Problems

Sometimes I overhear parents or teachers of individuals with autism telling them to be “good” in music therapy. Do I really want people to be good? How can I provide constructive therapy services if I never encounter the challenging issues parents or teachers deal with every day?

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Granted, days would be more peaceful if my friends with autism who participate in music therapy groups or individual sessions at school or in the community were always on their best behavior. But I’m getting paid to help maximize the potential and enhance the quality of life of each person with autism. I cannot accomplish either of those goals if I am not aware of the challenges and issues that arise every day to impede progress or cause problems at home or at school or in the community.

It seems to me that telling a youngster to be “good” in music therapy is like our telling a dentist our aching tooth does not hurt. The dentist cannot treat a tooth if he does not know it hurts. Therapists and other professionals cannot address daily challenges if we do not know they exist.

After I’ve had a chance to connect with an individual with autism and develop a relationship, I like to continue raising the bar in therapy. For example, if a youngster is very resistant to participating in any activities in the mornings, I might begin with music therapy sessions in the afternoon, but gradually move them earlier and earlier until his sessions are scheduled at his grumpiest time of the morning. That allows me to see the challenging behavior and work together with parents and teachers to develop a strategy for increasing his level of contentment and cooperation at that time of day.

I might schedule individual music therapy sessions for a youngster with autism who is extraordinarily disruptive in group settings. But, eventually, I will gradually begin inviting other people to join his music therapy sessions, slowly adding people until he is participating in a group session without really realizing the change.

TIP FOR THE DAY. There are times when it is certainly appropriate for parents or teachers to encourage their youngster to “be good.” But therapists and other professionals can probably do a better job if they, indeed, see the youngster at his worst, so be cautious about covering up challenging issues and masking problems.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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