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BY Marlowe

Enjoying Music with Children of ALL Abilities

For me, motherhood and music have always gone hand in hand.   However, when my oldest daughter Lila was 15 months old, she regressed and slowly stopped speaking and making eye contact.  Communication came to a halt – and the joy of music stopped for a while too.  It was daunting trying to share music without the usual eye contact and feedback that you get from a typical child.  As a mom and a musician, I had to adapt and come up with new ways to make enjoying music accessible to my daughter.

Music uses a different part of the brain than language.  Using all of the senses and every channel of communication makes things easier to process.  At first, I started pairing visuals of what I was singing about, and using manipulatives like shakers and stuffed animals.  Then I added American Sign Language, movement and gestures, and I began to see Lila participate in her own ways.  She would add vocal approximations to fill in the blanks of familiar songs, and she began to enjoy music time again. As a happy by-product, I quickly found that all the things I was trying with Lila, were just as engaging for her typical younger sister Delia as well.

You don’t have to be a musician to reach your special needs child through music!  Here are some suggestions for music activities to try at home:

  • For early learners, get out all of your plastic or stuffed barnyard animals and sing “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Sing “On that farm he had a . . . ” and then let the child pick and hold an animal.  For some kids it’s easier if you hold up a choice of two animals and guide them to a choice.  They will then hear everyone singing about THEIR animal.  If your child can make sounds but no words, try having your child just say the sound “O” after the E-I-E-I “O”.
  • Try modeling pretend play by using a toy lion and sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Make the lion and yourself act like you are going to sleep during the verses – “In the jungle the lion sleeps tonight” – and then jump up and pretend to wake up with your child for the chorus – “A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh.” No expert singing required and tons of fun for the siblings and parents too.
    Find the lyrics HERE
  • Use visual posters along with your favorite nursery rhymes and songs.  Get a poster of the alphabet and point at each letter as your sing “ABC’s”.   Remember to pause and let them fill in the blanks by saying the letter or pointing .   The alphabet and numbers are a great way to engage visual learners.  You can try using fridge magnets as well.
  • DANCING is fun!!!  Pick out your personal favorite dance tune , turn up the stereo and have a dance party with your child.  It is important to model and participate in the fun. Another idea is to dance to songs with motion commands.   Check out “Dance Around the House”, which I wrote with the family music band that I am in, called the Swingset Mamas.   Listen on iTunes

Always remember that MUSIC and LOVE are the universal languages – neither requires words in order to communicate!


Written on November 8, 2010 by:

Marlowe Bechmann is a enthusastic Friendship Circle mom, and she is also a musician in an award-winning family music band called the Swingset Mamas. She teaches music to self-contained autism classes at elementary and middle schools, and spreads the message of inclusion through Ability Awareness assemblies at schools across the country. Learn more at or

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