It's Elementary | Music Therapy Program at Emblem
By Kelly Johnstone
While field trips and school assemblies can be a fun and interactive way for kids to learn about art and history, these kinds of activities are not always an option for students who have been diagnosed with severe autism, according to Emblem Academy PTA member, Christine Ruiz. That’s why the PTA and Student Services at the school reached out to music teacher Rodney Dong. Dong has been teaching music therapy for eleven years and now visits Emblem Academy once a month to teach six, one-hour long classes for students pre-K thru sixth grade.
“The focus of the group is on music interaction; working on socialization and expression through music,” Dong said.
“Just getting to be part of a community using music, as well, to help us really become more aware of each other, and part of an experience that’s bigger than yourself.”
Dong’s Music Therapy class focuses on helping his students become less “sensory defensive” toward their environment. He does this by introducing them to different musical instruments and the sounds they produce.
Autistic children can have trouble accessing relationships in places like schools since they are often unsettled by unexpected things, like loud noises, he said. By introducing new sounds and instruments in a non-threatening way, Dong helps his students become less sensitive to their surroundings, providing them with the comfort they need to be interested in learning about music.
His methods also involve introducing students to instruments and then helping them access a rhythm or feel the beat. Each month, Dong brings in a new mystery instrument. He recently introduced his students to the saxophone and electric guitar.
“They’re kind of an enigma, but at the same time they have this enormous potential and I feel like I get a good opportunity to really see a bit of that, because I bring a positive musical experience to them,” Dong said.
“Sometimes you just get so surprised by what you see. The chance to just see something a little different each week; a child responding differently, really engaging me in the eyes or just all of a sudden breaking into a song on an instrument, is amazing. It’s a challenge, certainly, and it’s also really rewarding.”
Erica Henson, Saugus Union School District’s Student Services Coordinator is proud of the results.
“The music therapy program allows us to modify how we present the music curriculum so that it’s accessible to the students,” she said.
“They enjoy music and they are able to have an educational experience that incorporates music, that they [are] able to access very effectively.”
Parent and PTA member Christine Ruiz has seen the results of Emblem Academy’s Music Therapy program first hand. Her son is a student in the program and has limited vocabulary. After taking Dong’s classes, Ruiz says her son has began to use some of the words he learned in the classroom to identify toy instruments in his own home by name.
According to Ruiz, the parents and teachers involved in the program feel like one big family.
“We could always tell the new parents that we meet, ‘Hey I know you just got a tough diagnosis, a lot of things going on in your life, but you do have a great program. The teachers here are excellent; you don’t have to worry about your child in school’. We do a lot of things to bring the families together.”
The Music Therapy program is funded by private donations from the Kona Ice Company and Ray Mount Electric as well as grants acquired through the state PTA. However, Ruiz says that as the program continues to grow and evolve along with the rising number of autism diagnoses, the money runs out quickly.
“We hope, in the future, to raise funds on a larger scale and always have [the Music Therapy program] continuous in our schools even beyond when our children graduate.”
The Regional Autism program at Emblem Academy serves students from the Saugus, Sulphur Springs, Newhall, and Castaic school districts.©2014 SCVTV