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improving mental health in kids

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Music therapy is proving to be a promising option for children with autism spectrum disorder, with recent research finding it promotes social and cognitive development. Studies have shown that receiving unsuitable care can cause long-term mental health issues.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with traditional modes of treatment, along with undereducated health professionals who can do more harm than good to those on the autism spectrum, according to a Sage Journals report. However, there is evidence to suggest music therapy could be a safe and patient-centred option for neurodivergent children.

From ominous music in horror movies to a relaxing meditation soundtrack used in yoga class, many find music to be a powerful tool for managing, manipulating or expressing their emotions. But since the early stages of music therapy as an experimental form of treatment in the late 16th century, the practise has grown rapidly to become a structured, evidence-based treatment. In 1944 there was only one academic institution providing music therapy training, but by 2020 that number had increased to almost 250.

The Frontiers study, published in April this year, reported the positive effect of music therapy on ASD participants’ developmental skills, especially regarding speech production and social functioning. It reported that the method of beginning with the interests of the child, motivates them to learn and communicate more effectively, rather than imposing the treatment on them.

Music therapy can benefit children with autism.
Photo Credit: Jalleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Music therapy is reported to provide helpful techniques for those who struggle with typical communication, through the use of alternate forms of communicating. This includes singing, improvisation, listening, composition and using musical instruments as a mode of expression.

This therapy can embolden patients and develop social skills such as eye contact, conversation and joint attention; this refers to the ability to focus on an object mutually with another person such as when someone points to something while talking.

Music therapists employ techniques to teach patients new skills, through attaching skills to musical activities. After children understand these skills, they can continue without the activities and eventually learn to apply these skills independently in their daily lives.

Music therapists often use the Orff Method for children, as this treatment, created by Orff Shulwert, is child-centred and is found to produce better responses from children. It includes Carl Orff’s compositions and involves percussion, singing, and dancing.

Music therapy can involve percussion, singing and dancing.
Photo Credit: Anna Earl on Unsplash

Studies report masses of therapists are not educated on the autism spectrum or other neurodivergent conditions, and apply outdated and unsuitable methods to them, according to a Spectrum article. The article refers to the treatment commonly used, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), with advocates stating the treatment is not the only option for those on the spectrum. They also discuss the need for awareness and acceptance of neurodivergent people and why widespread education is vital for health professionals and organisations.

This issue is increasingly pressing, as children with autism spectrum disorder are at a high risk of coinciding mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, according to the Sage Journals report. Science Daily reports the number to be 78% with another mental health condition.

Mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are more common in autistic children.
Photo Credit: Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

This lack of education around the autism spectrum also greatly disadvantages girls and women, who present with less widely researched symptoms. Only 8% of girls with autism are diagnosed before the age of 6, compared to 25% of boys, according to the Organisation for Autism Research (OAR). The research unveils girls are more likely to engage in ‘masking’, a concept involving hiding their emotions and urges, and imitating others to fit in. This means that many girls with autism go unnoticed by the adults around them.

The elements of masking include:

  1. Imitating facial expressions
  2. Concealing emotions
  3. Trying to avoid going non-verbal
  4. Zoning out of conversations
  5. Suppressing stims
  6. Putting on an act to fit in
Girls often go undiagnosed.
Photo Credit: Soragrit Wongsa on Unsplash

The OAR highlights how health professionals are letting down girls with autism, revealing that many perpetuate the stigma that only boys can have the condition, leading to girls being misdiagnosed, diagnosed later in life or even not getting a diagnosis at all. For those who do get diagnosed, treatment often doesn’t take into account the different symptoms girls can experience, including preferring not to be hugged, not following instructions, losing skills they previously held, avoiding eye contact and having difficulty explaining what they want or need.

With this widespread lack of education and insufficient responses, effective and safe treatments like music therapy can be a beacon of hope, according to Monica Subiantoro’s article in the Atlantis Press. Subiantoro writes that children with autism develop confidence and hope as a result of positive and validating interactions.

To let your kids’ play in dirt, or to not let your kids’ play in the dirt; that is the question. Maggie Dent, an acclaimed parenting guru, suggests that kids should be getting back to playing in nature as there are so many benefits for kids’ playing outside rather than their lives’ being dominated by technology.

If you were to mention the name Maggie Dent in parenting circles chances are someone would have subscribed to her values, heard her on radio, attended a seminar or read one of her five books in the quest for answers on how to survive in the world of parenting.

Maggie could never be accused of tiptoeing around the truth. She holds strong on her values and isn’t afraid to voice them. And while her work touches a vast array of issues across the parenting spectrum, from homework and education, emotional development, bullying and suicide, gender differences, play, crisis management and building resilience, her heart never wavers from its true ambition of helping parents raise happy and healthy kids in the modern world.

When Offspring spoke with Maggie she straight up offered to let us in on a secret. A little secret about raising children. All ears tuned in and we waited with baited breath. She may have ensnared a copy of that mythological user manual that failed to be handed out to us when our children were born.

“The secret is dirt,” Maggie quips. And we suspect she quite enjoyed our initial state of confusion. “Dirt, and lots of it.”

“The secret is dirt, and lots of it.”

Could it really be that simple? In her familiar, passionate, banter Maggie went on to explain through her seventeen years of teaching in Western Australian schools and then working as a counsellor, as well as raising four boys into happy and well rounded young men, that the real secret to raising kids is to let them play, explore and have fun while allowing them the chance to make mistakes, get dirty and occasionally get hurt.

“Today’s modern lifestyles, full of game consoles, social media and television is having a consequence on our children’s development and kids as young as five are suffering clinical depression and anxiety disorders,” Maggie explains.

“We have created a world so busy, so competitive and an education system so focused on academic results that we are providing our children with fewer and fewer opportunities for unstructured play. We are diminishing their freedom to just be kids.”

Without hesitation Maggie finger-points NAPLAN testing as well as compulsory starts to pre-primary years as some of the main catalysts.

“We now have a world full of information available at our finger tips but we rely on Google instead of instinct.”

“The irony is that 20 years ago children were turning up to Year One better prepared and with less learning delays, stress and anxiety related illnesses and hyper-sensitive behaviours than the children of today. We now have a world full of information available at our finger tips but we rely on Google instead of instinct and sweeping national standards of achievement rather than tuning into the individual child,” she says.

“We spend so much time trying to safely guide our children and prevent bad things from happening to them that we are dissolving their ability to judge risk for themselves which ironically sets them up for disaster in this unpredictable world.”

Buoyant with enthusiasm, Maggie divulges how play teaches us to learn to wait, to take turns, to develop the art of strategy, to lose and to win graciously. It’s also fantastic exercise and can reduce stress.

 

Perhaps most importantly, unstructured play stimulates our curiosity, our “seeking mechanism”. An under-active seeking mechanism in adulthood can contribute to a person staying stuck in an unloving relationship, or a boring and soulless job. And no one wants to sign their child up for that!

“If we, as parents, teachers, indeed, as a society, don’t start taking play more seriously and allow our children to take a few risks, we are denying them the opportunity to be resilient human beings,” and the sense of urgency in her voice is clear.

Sadly, the problem doesn’t discriminate – country or city, outback or coast – somewhere over the last ten years parenting became a competition with the perception of having to be a perfect parent and also having the perfect child. This in turn is increasing anxiety in our kids.

“I have never met a perfect human being so why do we pressure our kids to be exceptional and perfect? There is no perfect child, parent or teacher. There never was nor will be. Humans have flaws,” she says.

“If we, as parents, teachers, indeed, as a society, don’t start taking play more seriously and allow our children to take a few risks, we are denying them the opportunity to be resilient human beings.”

So are we doomed or is there a solution? Maggie assures us all is not lost.

“Children need to know they are valued and loved. Feeling invisible or unloved causes enormous stress to a child’s nervous system. Often children can become emotionally needy and anxious about getting the love they yearn,” she says.

 

“Remember, children do not see all the cooking, washing and cleaning as signs of love and connection. To feel loved, children need to hear the words, have loving touch and know that you are ‘present’ to them.”

It sounds easy. But in reality parents are busy people. Many parents work or have a litany of demands upon them and limited capacity to play without time constraint. An excuse maybe, but for many, this is reality.

“Anyone with young children in their household needs to make play a priority,” Maggie is staunch on this point. “Spontaneous moments of connection are more valuable to a child than timetabled quality time.”

You can put your diary down.

Somewhere over the last ten years parenting became a competition with the perception of having to be a perfect parent and also having the perfect child.

Often the only time in our busy days, when we can really relax, focus and connect with our children is at bedtime. Perfect. Maggie describes how following a loving bedtime ritual every night is an extremely powerful way of anchoring your love for your child and reducing anxiety.

Maggie gives the tip that the last thing your child should hear every night before entering the land of nod is how much you love them and fostering the concept of a love that transcends all boundaries and absences. A concept she has aptly named a love bridge.

“I always told my boys ‘I love you more than all the grains of sand on every beach, more than all the stars in the night sky and more than all the hairs on all the bears’ and they still remember it,” she says.

“It’s about creating a sense of connection even in absence. For children, particularly under four years, repeating the concept nightly and planting the idea of the enormity of your love can create an almost tangible sense that you are always with them.”

 

“Spontaneous moments of connection are more valuable to a child than timetabled quality time.”

The love bridge can do wonders for anxiety in children (and alleviate some parental guilt for times when you can not be with them).

Are you ready for another secret? It’s about presence not presents. With Christmas just around the corner, Maggie reminds us that children are naturally creative thinkers and don’t need the latest fancy toys to predict and channel their play, instead the best gift would be spending time together discovering, playing and making magical memories. That might mean going away on holidays together or just spending time at home.

“It’s important not to be swayed by advertising and commercial pressures and enjoy a little of the magic that comes but once a year.”

Maggie’s best piece of advice?

“Have fun and spend as much time as you can with your child in the first three foundation years because children who experience joy and delight through free play are psychologically stronger and a have greater capacity to overcome adversity in the adolescent years.”