Our First Experience with Therapeutic Listening

by Tim on August 7, 2008

Tuesday we tried something with J-Man’s OT called “Therapeutic Listening” (officially, it’s a trademarked term by somebody). You may have come across this under terms like ‘auditory therapy’, ‘auditory training’, ‘listening therapy’, and a host of other terms. I don’t understand how all this works very well at all, and there are different approaches to make things more complicated in learning about it. Here are some sites that give you an overview. I’d suggest reading them in this order: Vital Links (about Therapeutic Listening ®), Tomatis, Berard AIT, and Samonas (whose website layout is a mess, but that’s another matter).

From what I gather, the above methods vary some from one to the other. The following describes what we did for Therapeutic Listening on Tuesday. Any similarities between my description and the actual science and technical bases for any of these methods may be pure luck on my part. Like I said, this is new to me. It’s the end result that left me astonished, and plenty fascinated to learn more about this.

The real basic, grossly simplified description is that the child wears special headphones that allow ambient noise (e.g., conversation in the room) in while he listens to specially-altered music at a volume about what normal talking would be. The music is specially modulated. I listened to it and it’s weird. For the CD our OT used, it just took regular children’s songs (Itsy, Bitsy Spider) – though the person singing it was quite good (about 0.5 Mahalia Jackson units) – but she also has Mozart, Baroque, etc. The child listens to it for 20-30 minutes each session, though we only did 10 since it was the first time. For people with normal auditory response, it’s likely going to be annoying, which it was. For its intended audience, it’s supposed to have a completely different effect.

The idea is that this music calms the systems of some kids with sensory processing problems and helps them focus much better on tasks and what’s going on around them in general. It can also help autistic kids who generally have a hard time differentiating sounds when they hear many things at once (a conversation in a room + a TV + a fan + themselves, etc.) and getting their brains to naturally decide what’s important to listen to and what isn’t, something many of us take for granted. Given that one of those sounds might be themselves trying to talk, not being able to correctly hear oneself talking certainly makes learning to talk very hard. Hence this method apparently can help speech delayed kids improve their communication.

Here’s the interesting part – occasionally it’s like someone took the bass and treble knobs in each hand and jacked them in opposite directions really fast and then back again. Other times it has a bit of static like someone quickly tuned slightly off channel on a radio (but you could still hear some of the station) and then back. Still other times the music sounds muddy or tinny and so on. It’s really hard to describe. The headphones are spendy, but the idea is that they have extremely good frequency response to both keep up with the quick changes but also accurately reproduce the sounds. Like I said, they also allow ambient noise in, like people talking in the room.

OK, enough preamble. Here’s what I completely did not expect to happen.

J-Man hates having people mess with his head and ears. These are full, over-the-ear, cup headphones. I figured he would rip them off immediately. pitch a fit, and that would be that. She turned the music on, then put the headphones on him after doing a volume check on herself, he flinched for a second like he was going after them, then he just stopped, closed his eyes (and put a hand and one arm over his eyes), curled up into the OT’s lap, and appeared to be OUT. He looked like he was asleep. He may have been asleep. It was hard to tell. Neither of us could believe that given how fidgety he is, but there it was.

So we kept talking (he should have been able to hear us through the headphones) and that got no reaction. We checked his pulse; it seemed about normal. None of his normal cues of distress, or of anything bad. I’m so used to having to read his non-verbal cues for anything beyond “points to cup picture = thirsty” that when he does something completely new, it’s disconcerting to me. This was one of those times. But he gave none of his normal reactions that would indicate overstimulation, fear, pain, etc. It literally was like someone flipped a switch in him and put him to sleep for 10 minutes. I’ve never seen him do this, but I couldn’t see any negative reactions on his part within that.

At first I thought he was dropping out entirely and perseverating on the music (not an outcome you want for kids who naturally fixate on stuff). But this sure seemed like something else as I have a good sense of what perseverating looks like for him. While music is very calming to him, I’ve never seen this kind of reaction to it. I still don’t know what it was. The OT was stumped too. Of all the kids she’s worked with, she said none have had this kind of response.

We’ve kept an eye on him since and noticed no ill effects. Actually he seemed somewhat less sensory-seeking and less upset than usual. This certainly isn’t a scientific analysis or anything, but it certainly is intriguing.

Anyway, I’ve wanted to try this just to see and our OT is trained in Therapeutic Listening. I really didn’t think it would amount to anything nor did I think he’d even cooperate. Boy was I wrong, though I still don’t understand exactly what happened. After a couple of days to ponder it, I’m really interested in trying this again. I feel like something positive happened, though I’d like to understand why. Yet more reading up to do.

If anyone has experience with any of these auditory therapies, we’d love to hear from you.

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