Chapter 2 Otter Lake Study Using Fast Complex Drumming for Children with Autism
This first excerpt explores my first formal study, beginning with the first of 16 subjects entering the testing room where I would play my drum and get a baseline for how they responded to my music.
This study was conducted in the Spring of 1994 in a public elementary school in the suburbs of St. Paul, MN. The results we significant enough that I was immediately asked to present a paper at several autism conferences including one for the Autism Society of Minnesota and for The Center for the Study of Autism.
I rushed to my room and set up my equipment while the kids arrived at school. Erik began the process of lining up which student will come at which time over the next two days. I would play for eight kids each day, recording the sessions and making notes, after each student leaves, of any thoughts and feelings I had as I played for them. Erik would keep the kids in the room and re-direct any behavior he saw as being disruptive to the process. He would alert me to any potential problems he may see coming or that I may have unwittingly initiated. He would also take notes of his observations of each child’s reactions to my playing. From these recordings and our collective notes, I would go back to my studio and make a custom drumming tape for each kid.
“Steven won’t be able to tolerate the drumming,” his teacher said to me as she brought him to the room. “He is much too sensitive to sounds to be in this tiny room when you play that loud drum,” she added, looking at Erik hoping, I think, for him to agree with her and let her take Steven away. Erik took Steven’s hand without a word and guided him to a chair across the room from me.
“I’ll play quietly and Erik will remove him if he is bothered,” I replied.
She nodded but looked at me and Erik with doubt and concern. Reluctantly, she left, but stood by the door. Erik gave her a reassuring look as he gently closed the door and settled in a chair next to Steven.
Our testing room was small, about eight feet square, with cinder block walls, a suspended acoustical tile ceiling and a linoleum floor. Typical mid-century industrial drab construction. The reflective walls and floor created a booming sound with the bass of the drum and the tiny space made volume a real issue if I wasn’t careful.
I was careful.
“Would you like me to play the drum for you, Steven?” I asked.
No response. He stood, left side facing me while looking at the wall and running his finger along the mortar line.
A scream erupted from outside of the room. Steven grabbed his ears and began to rock. His teacher, seeing this through the window of the door, started to enter but Erik waved her off and signaled me to start playing.
I tapped a slow bass tone, pushing my right palm into the center of the drum at a tempo in time to his rocking. He kept rocking and after a minute, dropped his hands from his ears. I continued this pattern for another minute or so and then added a quiet syncopation with my left hand in time to the bass tone. Simple at first, slowly growing in tempo and complexity. Steven turned my way.
I changed my rhythm to a faster triplet-based feel, one that often excited the children. I was hoping to get him engaged with the rhythm, so I added some bass and slap tones and played an odd meter variation on a Brazilian Naningo rhythm. This rhythm has a smooth half-time triplet feel.
Steven made his way along the wall and toward me and, more importantly, my drum. I added some bouncy fills to vary the rhythm. It took him a few minutes of moving along the wall, but soon he was standing right next to me when he stealthily moved his hand to the drum. He lightly touched the edge of the rim with his palm and let his fingers drape onto the head. He held it there as I kept playing this triple feel rhythm. He had a flat affect, showing no sign on his face of liking or disliking my playing as he stood touching the drum and it’s head.
He stood unmoving for several minutes, so I switched to a calmer rhythm, one that many children have sat or lain down to, in an effort to elicit a response.
Nothing. He continued to stand facing the wall with his hand on the drum. I switched to a bass-heavy rhythm, knowing that he would feel a strong sensation in his fingers.
He smiled and moved his hand further onto the drumhead. With his hands in the way it was getting difficult to play and Erik, noticing this, tried to distract Steven and pull his attention and hand away.
Steven pulled back from Erik, keeping his hand on the drum. He began rocking again. I moved my hands to the edge of the drum and played a light soft rhythm, partly to get my hands away from his so I could keep playing and partly because I wanted to keep him from getting anxious or reacting negatively to Erik’s redirection.
Erik was eventually able to redirect Steven and have him sit quietly next to him as I continued playing. Once Steven was sitting, I increased the intensity and volume of my playing. Steven sat and listened. I kept building volume and rhythm speed. Steven sat quietly. Again, I raised the volume. Steven sat. With a volume that was high for the room and despite what I was told he could handle, Steven didn’t seem bothered. I dropped the drumming to a whisper. Steven looked my way.
Encouraged by his response, I lightly tapped the edge of the head at a barely audible volume. Steven watched my hands intently as I fingered some double tempo patterns.
With Steven watching my hands, I stopped and placed my hands on the drumhead. He watched my hands for a minute and then got up and came over to the drum. He put his hands on mine and stood in front of me, looking off into the distance at the wall. We stayed that way for a few minutes until Erik came over and gently guided Steven back to his classroom.
I was feeling pretty peaceful about now and enjoying the silence of the room when a tornado came in. Her name was Nina. She was a highly verbal, highly anxious 9 year-old with Asperger syndrome.
Asperger syndrome is a subset on the autism spectrum and is the form of autism that Stacey (Chapter 1) had. Nina was a lot like Stacey. She had a large vocabulary that she felt free to use, though most of what she said was not appropriate or sensical. With Erik on her heels, she burst in my room and walked directly to me.
I introduced myself to her, showed her my drum, and asked if she minded if I played for her. She said that she didn’t and then began vigorously beating the drum. So vigorously, in fact, that it was impossible for me to play at the same time. While I held the drum, I let her play for a few minutes until she seemed to settle a bit. She didn’t stop on her own, however, and required Erik to redirect her before I could play.
This experience was a good introduction to Nina’s overall personality and behavior. She, the school staff described, was an intense, uninhibited child. She was verbal and tended to perseverate on whatever came to mind. She talked almost constantly about anything and everything, much of it running together and making little sense. She was also highly anxious and sometimes aggressive to others. Her teachers noted that she was disruptive to the other students and they found it difficult to get her attention and keep her on task. It wasn’t uncommon to need to separate her from the other children and to work with her one-on-one to get her to attend to her schoolwork.
When I began playing, Erik was playing a hand game with her while she continued to talk. She paid no attention to my playing initially, but after a few minutes she focused her attention on me when I began playing a rhythm that I often found helpful for people who were anxious or engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. This rhythm, one that I had just successfully played for Steven, was based on a Brazilian Naningo. This pattern starts in a 12/8 time signature with accents on the first (bass tone), third (bass tone), sixth (open tone), seventh (slap tone), tenth (open tone) and twelfth (open tone) beats and evolves into a 23/16 rhythm by dropping the last beat of the second measure. This rhythm then drops another 2 beats to repeat a 21/16 time signature pattern.
After settling into this 21/16 portion, Nina sat down in a chair next to Erik and watched me play. I continued this rhythm and some variations on it for several minutes during which time Nina became quiet and attentive to what I was doing. I played for another six minutes using a variety of similar rhythms while she stayed quiet and sat in her chair, watching me play.
When I ended, she remained quiet while Erik led her back to her classroom. Her teacher later reported that she was calm the rest of the morning, until lunchtime when she became agitated by the change from the quiet of the classroom to the commotion of the lunchroom. The rest of her day was similar to other days, with her teachers struggling to keep her from acting out and becoming disruptive to the other students.
Nina was followed by her opposite: Marcus. Marcus was a small, quiet eight-year-old. Where Nina was high activity, high anxiety, Marcus was nonverbal, and largely non-responsive. Erik led him in the room and he sat, or more accurately, melted into the chair.
Like with all the kids, I started by playing very quietly for Marcus. He sat motionless for the longest time until, when I was playing a bouncy rhythm in a 19/8 time signature, he got up and walked over to the drum. He put his hands on the side of the drum as I played. I then switched to a simple samba-like pattern consisting of two bass tones followed by two quiet, open tones. This rhythm bounced along until I dropped a beat here and there to create a more syncopated samba-type feel. With the heavy bass tone pattern, Marcus lay down and crawled under the drum. He positioned his stomach directly under the bottom of the drum.
I dropped the volume a little so as not to hurt Marcus’ ears, but kept playing an abundance of bass tones. Marcus stayed on the floor for the rest of the time I played.
When I stopped, Erik picked Marcus up and took him back to his room. He came back with nine-year-old Sammy. She came into the room and didn’t say a word to me as I introduced myself. Erik had her sit next him and nodded at me to begin.
She sat quietly as I started playing the drum. After just a few times through a basic calming rhythm, Sammy looked at me and smiled. Over the next ten minutes, I played a large variety of rhythms, from simple, calming rhythms to complex, intensely focused rhythms. Sammy never stopped smiling. She did seem to prefer open tones on the drum and rhythms with triplet-feel (these types of rhythms tend to have an uplifting quality to them).
After I stopped playing and Sammy was taken back to her class, the teacher described that Sammy rarely talked, though she was able to express her needs and desires when prompted. She was also very socially withdrawn and difficult to engage, had poor eye contact, and poor motor control.
Next came Lucas, another eight-year-old. Lucas was somewhat similar to Nina in that he talked a lot, often not making much sense, and he could be aggressive to other children if he became overstimulated. He differed from Nina in that he rarely initiated contact with other children in his class, preferring to interact with his teacher and aide.
Lucas was told I would be playing a drum for him, so when he arrived he immediately approached me and asked me what kind of drum I was holding. I told him as I tapped it, then asked him if he’d like to play it a bit.
He touched the head as he tapped it with his fingers and talked and asked me a series of questions. The questions came as fast as he tapped, with no space for me to answer. But he didn’t seem to want any answers. This pace continued for several minutes until Erik redirected him away from the drum. At that point, Lucas shifted his one-way conversation to Erik and I started playing.
I played quietly at first with the hope that he’d stop talking and focus his attention on the drum. I began with a simple calming rhythm that is a variation on a 2-beat long Brazilian mambo beat.
Short rhythms such as the mambo need to be varied for people on the developmental disability spectrum. Otherwise, they become annoying to the listener and defeat the purpose of calming.
In this instance, the variation I used created a rhythm in a time signature of 31/16 (the typical rhythm is in 2/4). Lucas shifted his attention to me, but continued talking as I played. After about ten minutes of playing various rhythms, I settled into a more complex rhythm and Lucas stopped talking almost immediately. I played this rhythm and some variations for a couple of minutes before Lucas came up to me and asked me how long I was going to play. I took this as a cue to stop.
Next came Tom. Tom, like Steven, was extremely sensitive to sound. He was very anxious and often aggressive. He was also nonverbal, which tends to contribute to anxiety and aggressive behavior for many children due to their inability to express their needs. Unfortunately, Tom often hit others without provocation. This was a problem and his teacher was hopeful that the drumming would help calm him down. She was concerned, however, because of his extreme sensitivity to sound, that he wouldn’t do well with the rhythms. After my experience with Steven, I wasn’t so worried.
With Tom’s sound sensitivities in mind, I began by playing very quietly. Tom grabbed my hands and stopped me on several occasions, sometimes tapping the drum himself, seemingly to get comfortable with it and its sound. After about 4 minutes, he sat down next to Erik and watched me as I played.
I played a large variety of rhythms over the next 12 minutes and observed that he seemed to prefer rhythms that had a flowing regularity to them. The more complex, chaotic rhythms appeared to make him tense up a bit, though at no point did he cover his ears or indicate in any way that we was bothered by the drumming, even though there where a few times where I played very loudly.
By the time I stopped playing, Tom was sitting next to Erik and vocalizing along with the drumming. I couldn’t hear him as I played, but Erik reported that Tom began vocalizing about two minutes before I stopped. In reviewing the session recording, I noticed that at that point in the session I had been playing a rhythm with repeating groupings of five. Tom stopped vocalizing after a minute or so of when I stopped playing.
He was the last person I played for that day. I left the school feeling pretty satisfied with the childrens’ responses, hopeful that I could have a positive impact with this study. The next day I played for the rest of the children in the study and was again encouraged by their responses to the rhythms.
All the children were calmed and sometimes engaged by my drumming, which was a good start. But our goal was to see if listening to a recording of the drumming would elicit the same calm as my live playing. I spent the next week making each child their own cassette tape by playing rhythms I had mapped out from the live recordings and notes. Each recording would be twenty minutes long. The following Monday I brought everyone their tapes. It was like Christmas, at least for me, to hand them out.
Erik and I asked the teachers to play each child’s recording once a day, preferably turning it on at a time when the child was anxious, then track their response. We would do this for four weeks at which time I would come back and see how everyone was doing.
This study was also instrumental in the development of the REI Custom Program. Like with this study, each listener receives recordings custom made for him and his issues, ensuring the best possible results for each client.
You can learn more about the REI Custom Program here: