Therapeutic Listening: Protocol & Side Effects

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Therapeutic listening is designed to help children and adults with sensory processing issues. Does it work, and if so, how? What are the possible side effects? We will explore these and more questions in this lesson.

A Puzzling Child

Walt and Sandy's nine-year-old son Sawyer baffled them. He was bright, but couldn't sit still. Loud noises really upset him; the sound of the lawn mower made him dive under the kitchen table shaking. He only ate a few foods, though his appetite seemed good, and he could only tolerate certain clothing.

The family doctor said medically, Sawyer was fine. He didn't have the symptoms of ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder. Still, she referred Walt and Sandy to an occupational therapist, since Sawyer's problems seemed related to his senses, something OTs frequently address.

After an evaluation, Roman, the therapist, told them Sawyer had sensory processing disorder. Difficulty in integrating what he saw, heard, felt and touched caused him to experience distress. ''Fortunately, there are several therapy techniques we can use to help improve Sawyer's ability to process what goes on around him,'' Roman told them. ''I'll do some things with him in therapy, and you can participate. Some you can do at home too.''

Therapeutic Listening

Roman began doing exercises with Sawyer regularly, everything from playing in different textures, like sand or marbles or clay, to climbing on playground equipment and hanging upside down! Sawyer seemed to enjoy his therapy, but his parents didn't see a lot of change in his behavior or tolerance. So, while working on the therapy tasks, Roman also starting having Sawyer listen to special music through headphones.

''This is an approach called therapeutic listening,'' Roman said. ''The music he's listening to is specially modulated to help integrate the workings of his hearing and vestibular systems—the vestibular system controls balance and his position in space.

''If you want to reinforce this at home, you can buy the equipment and I'll loan you some of the music. Ideally it should be done 20 to 30 minutes twice daily for good results.''

Looking at the Research

Walt got online to check therapeutic listening out. He found that it is considered an experimental treatment, which relies to a great extent on the individual child's needs and the individual therapist's expertise to choose the best music and accompanying activities.

Therapeutic listening is used for persons with developmental delays, autism, and ADHD. Some parents have reported good results, saying their children were calmer, better organized, able to do more for themselves, and could tolerate sensory input that sent them into a tailspin before. However, other parents saw little improvement. A few even said the music seemed to upset their children more. They reported increased tantrums or difficulty in managing their environment.

The reports of negative side effects worried Sandy. However, Walt pointed out that while there were few evidence-based studies that conclusively showed therapeutic listening had positive effects, there were none that demonstrated it caused negative results. One review of the research even noted that if proven methods didn't help a child, experimental ones were acceptable to try.

Sandy listened to one of the therapeutic recordings, and noticed how it sounded as if someone were turning the bass, treble and midrange up and down at intervals. Since Sawyer had listened several times, Sandy decided the best route was to ask him what he thought. ''I like it,'' he said. ''It's nice.'' Sandy watched him listen while playing with blocks; occasionally he would pause as if something in the music had caught his attention, and listen intently for a moment before resuming his play.

What Causes Change?

After a few weeks, Walt was driving his son home from therapy one day when Sawyer began to talk about things he heard around him, like car horns and dogs barking. When Walt saw an ambulance far off he winced, because the piercing sound of a siren always upset Sawyer. Today, though, they both just watched it go by, and Sawyer said ''Boy, that's loud!''

Walt told Sandy, and they shared the news with Roman. ''Great!'' the therapist said. ''Maybe the therapeutic listening is helping Sawyer's brain learn how to tune in to what's going on around him without overwhelming him.''

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