Music’s magical powers: How melodies help special needs students communicate

Teachers are finding great success with music as therapy for children with intellectual, developmental differences

Is music the key to special education? Can it help a nonverbal child communicate?

Teachers at one school are finding great success with music as a therapy for children with intellectual and developmental differences.

At the North Florida School of Special Education, music is proving to be a powerful tool for unlocking the potential of children with autism and Down syndrome.

Ciaran Sontag, a beloved music teacher at the school, believes that music gives students the chance to be themselves and express who they truly are.

“It really unlocks another level to the students,” Sontag said. “To their social development, to their educational development.”

The impact of music on many students is remarkable. Sontag recalls moments when nonverbal students surprised everyone by speaking or singing in his class. “When you have a student who everyone has told you is nonverbal and is not going to speak, and you say hello to them, and they sing it back to you, that’s what music does for students,” he explained.

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St. John Bargas, a talented musician who plays multiple instruments, including the piano, ukulele, drums, guitar, violin, cello and bass, is a shining example of the power of music. According to St. John’s mother, Jackie Bargas, music has provided him with an equal playing field.

“The fact that he’s able to read music, he’s just like any other kid. Or any other musician. He has to practice,” she says.

St. John’s musical abilities have even earned him a place in the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra. Bargas graduated from the school last year.

Dr. Deb Rains, the Assistant Head of School at the North Florida School of Special Education, said music brings unique benefits for students with autism and other differences.

“In our students with autism, there’s just a bundle of axons that connects the two sides of the brain,” Raines said. “On one side of the brain, you have melody, and on the other side, you have rhythm and speech development. So if you have music, you have both of those things. So you get kind of a double bang for your buck using music for language.”

Music not only enhances language development but also boosts confidence and emotional well-being. The school regularly hosts orchestras, allowing students to experience the power of music firsthand.

Laurie Casseday, from the Florida Chamber Music Project, notes that even the shyest students engage and come out of their shells during these events.

“The ones that aren’t shy are just fabulous, so much fun! They’re having a great time,” she said.

Casseday and her fellow volunteer musicians played music based on emotions. Students were able to request a string of emotions with flashcards. That translated to music.

For the students themselves, music brings a sense of calm and happiness.

Willette, one of the students, describes the emotions music evokes, saying, “I feel really calm, very happy inside. Sometimes I feel happy, sometimes I feel dramatic, sometimes I’m excited to come here.”

Rains believes that music therapy is a crucial part of the solution for these students.

“I think it’s the beginning of a solution,” she noted. “Music therapy is something that you can engage in, unlike other therapies that require constant visits to different specialists.”

As the students at the North Florida School of Special Education continue to break out of their shells through the power of music, it becomes more and more evident that music’s magical powers have a profound impact on their lives.

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Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.