Tag Archives: Autism Spectrum Disorders

Super Supplemental: Mystery Box

15 Dec

This week, I’d like to share one of my favorite supplemental aids to use in sessions: my mystery box! It cost less than $4 to make and is something I have been able to re-purpose for many different populations and uses.


  • Scrapbook or Memory Box: $2 at AC Moore (Or a shoebox…which is also free!)
  • Stickers: $1.50 (I like using raised or foam stickers because they can provide an additional sensory experience for clients.)

Slap some stickers on your box and then you’re ready to go. Bonus points for making it look mysterious!

4 ways I’ve used my mystery box:

1. “Pass the Box” game.

Many of my clients benefit from practicing important skills like waiting, taking turns and following directions before Christmas arrives! This is a good way to prepare clients for what they might experience on Christmas morning (waiting while siblings open gifts, following directions from Mom and Dad, opening up a box with something unknown inside, etc). I have a simple “Pass the Box” song that I sing while I have clients pass it around the circle. They are only allowed to open the box and take something out when the music stops and they are the one holding it! I usually put different instruments (if they’re small enough) or instrument icons inside. Once everyone has an instrument, we have a jam session together!

Here’s a FREE DOWNLOAD (!!) of some of my instrument icons.

2.  Transitions.

The mystery box can be a great way to help clients transition from one activity to the next. This works especially well for clients with ASD who already use picture or object schedules for transitions throughout the school day! You can put an item in the box that represents the next activity (picture, instrument, scarf, etc) and have the client open it before the activity starts. You could also work on increasing client flexibility by putting one item for each activity in the box. Have clients reach in and select one item to determine what the next activity will be.

3.  Songwriting.

Put items such as stuffed animals, pictures, or key words/phrases inside the box. Use these items to create a short story or poem as a group, then orchestrate the story with sound effects or musical accompaniment. You could also have clients each write a word or phrase centered around a topic or question (i.e., What would you like to say to _____? How do you feel when _____?) and put their thoughts inside the mystery box anonymously.  Use these phrases to write an original song together.

4. Song title guessing game.

Find items to represent songs that you’ve done together as a group or pop songs on the radio (awesome for adolescents!). Have clients select items from the box and work together to try to guess the song title. Once the song title is guessed, sing or play it together. I especially like using this activity for older adults with dementia, because it can be a great opportunity for reminiscence. Select concrete visuals to put inside (i.e. Plastic yellow rose for “Yellow Rose of Texas”) and pair with extra clues (“There’s a state in the title!”) or write lines for each word in the song title on a large pad of paper (_____   _____   ____   _____). I’ve also found that this is a great termination activity and can spark a nice discussion about what your clients liked (or didn’t like!) about each activity.

Do you have a favorite supplemental that you find yourself using again and again? I’d love to hear about it!

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Quiet Voices and Calm Bodies: Music and Relaxation for Children with Autism

4 Nov

Whether you’re a therapist, teacher or parent, I have a feeling that you’ve experienced a day when your students are bouncing off the walls at least once in your career. For those working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, this may be a more frequent occurrence. I know I’ve even had sessions during which my clients shake, dance and drum their wiggles out many different ways without ever showing signs of calming down! I’ve found that sometimes what my clients really need is the opportunity to learn about and practice what it means to relax through therapist modeling, listening and tangible visual aids.

I’ve learned to think of music and relaxation for children with ASD as a highly concrete, experiential and organized process. I tend to use music and relaxation with this population in two different ways, depending on client needs:

  1. Entrainment with a rhythmic beat
  2. Introducing an instrument experience

Rhythm and Relaxation

Pairing a strong rhythmic beat with concrete visual aids may provide clients with ASD the tools necessary to work on self-regulating independently. When using this technique, I prefer recorded instrumental or live music (I usually use the guitar or a percussion instrument) that has a strong rhythmic beat between 70-90 beats per minute. Though traditional relaxation and meditation music may be highly successful for many populations, it may lack the sense of direction and concrete rhythmic organization that can be so helpful for individuals with ASD.

Relaxation doesn’t always have to mean sitting still; in fact, I frequently lead my groups in quiet knee patting, marching or scarf waving to help them internalize the pulse and get those wiggles out. Once everyone is moving together and feeling the beat, you might begin to notice the room growing quieter as your students focus on you and the music. Be on the look out for signs of relaxation and self-regulation demonstrated by your clients, which will vary based on individual needs and goals. While I might expect some clients to fully engage in all therapist-directed movements and breathing, other clients might instead be working on increasing their visual attention and in-seat behavior. The great thing about structured relaxation is that it can be easily adapted for a range of functioning levels and ages.

Instrument Experiences and Relaxation

P1020541Another highly successful music and relaxation activity for this population is introducing clients to a sensory instrument. I like to put on some recorded music that features one instrument so it isn’t overly distracting (usually either guitar or piano) and select one sensory instrument to use for the activity. Feel free to let client instrument preference guide your selection! To implement this activity, I walk around to each client and give them the opportunity to quietly play the instrument with me.

Suggested instruments and uses:

  • Cabasa:  Ask clients to hold out their hands and slowly roll the cabasa over their hands and arms
  • Guiro: Introduce as a bird or insect sound
  • Stir xylophone: Introduce as raindrops or water droplets
  • Thunder tube: Pair with rain stick or recording of ambient rain sounds

Keeping all of this in mind, I’d like to share a music and relaxation activity that I created that draws on both of the above techniques.

Guided Fall Walk with Drums


  • One large tubano, gathering drum or djembe
  • “Fall Walk Map” or a preferred visual aid

Picture 2I display the fall relax map, dim the lights and tell my clients that we are about to go on a calm, slow fall walk together. I begin playing a steady beat on the tubano and ask clients to quietly march in their seats (alternating feet if able) along with the beat. Once clients begin to match the beat, I improvise simple phrases and movements that match the images on the map. Each time we are “walking,” I play the beat on the tubano. Below is a basic script you might use for this activity and some suggested motions to compliment each line.

Sample script Sample motion
“We’re slowly walking through the pumpkin patch.” Soft marching in seats
Look! An apple tree. Let’s reach up and pick an apple off the tree.” Stop marching. Stretch both arms up and mime picking an apple. Repeat 2-3xs.
“Let’s continue our fall walk.” Marching in seats
“The fall wind starts to blow.” Stop marching. Model deep breath and blow out. Repeat 2-3xs. 
“The wind has blown some fall leaves off the trees. Let’s reach out and make a leaf pile.” Stretch arms out in front of you and model pulling leaves in toward your lap. Repeat 2-3xs.
“We walk a little more and find ourselves back in the pumpkin patch. What a fun fall walk!” Marching in seats

Helpful hints:

  • Prompting is key. I often introduce a relaxation exercise by saying, “When we are relaxing, our voices are quiet and our bodies are calm.” This can even be used as a mantra throughout the relaxation when spoken along with the pulse. Sometimes, clients need a reminder of what relaxation looks and feels like.
  • Use visual aids to enhance your activity.  I try to select an image to pair with the relaxation that can either be projected on the board or that I can take to each student individually to provide concrete visual support.
  • Keep some relaxation materials on hand at all times! You never know when you might need to pull it out during a session.

These are just some ideas to get you thinking about music and relaxation—I hope you can take this activity and run with it in your sessions and classes. I’d love to hear about how you use music to promote relaxation for children with ASD!

Fall Relax Images

Activity Inspiration: Apples in a Tree

22 Sep

As we make our way into fall, I want to share a fun seasonal activity that I created with the help of some large scale props, a little bit of craftiness and a few colorful chords. Many of the apple-themed activities that I have come across in my research are cute and catchy, but most are geared toward young children and emphasize academic skills such as counting and color identification. I have noticed that for groups in which clients’ ages and levels of functioning of clients vary greatly, targeting specific academic concepts may not often be the most beneficial therapeutic approach. I found that many of the most successful activities in this particular situation often emphasize broad cognitive, social and emotional areas such as decision-making, attention-to-task, impulse control and following directions.

For this activity, you’ll need to make a medium to large-sized tree as your main supplemental! I was lucky enough to recycle a leftover tree prop to make my apple tree, but a piece of poster board could work well for most groups. Draw or print enough apples for your group—I made sure there were at least three apples per person, plus a few extras in case some get damaged or lost—and adhere them to your tree with velcro. If possible, laminate your apples for extra durability.

Apple Tree

Apple Tree

For clients with autism who struggle with abstract thinking, I recommend making some sort of apple basket (either one large one for the group or individual baskets) in order to make the task more concrete. You’ll notice that my “apple baskets” are clear bins with a picture of a basket filled with apples on the front and inside.

Apple Basket

Apple Basket

Below you’ll find a brief recording of my song, “Apples in a Tree,” and a copy of the chord sheet. When I implement this activity, I instruct clients to sit and listen to the chorus, which contains the instructions, as I sing it through one time. Clients must then raise their hands during the “Who’s it gonna be?” verse if they would like to come pick an apple. This is repeated until every client has appropriately raised their hand and had an opportunity to come up to the apple tree. The overall song structure is very loose, as I often repeat the chorus and improvise lyrics over the melody as needed to prompt each client as they select an apple. After the final client has had a turn, I sing the last two lines that you’ll hear on the recording and have everyone hold up their apples.

Additional adaptations of this activity could include:

  • Creating supplemental aids on a smaller scale (i.e., file folder) for an individual session
  • Expanded goal areas:
    • Color sorting
    • Counting/math skills
    • Social skills (sharing)

I hope you’re able to implement this activity with your own clients. I’d love to hear about the adaptations that you make!

Apples On a Tree Chords

It’s A Beautiful Day for Music at Songs For Success!

16 Sep

Welcome to Songs For Success! My name is Kerry Cornelius and I am a music therapy intern working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Baltimore, MD.  Songs for Success was born of my desire to be an actively contributing member of the music therapy blogging community, which provides students and professionals alike with a unique opportunity to share innovative activities, insights and knowledge to improve and expand the practice of music therapy.

Over the coming months, I hope to address some of the challenges I feel are present when planning sessions for clients with lower functioning levels. Through my educational experiences, I have become aware of the difficulty of creating and implementing developmentally appropriate activities that also match each student’s chronological age. Although nursery rhymes and child-like melodies may be preferred by clients of all ages, those songs don’t usually reflect the musical preferences shared by their neurotypical peers. This presents a unique challenge for me as I continue to develop new session plans: how can I make music interventions age-appropriate, success-oriented, and most importantly—sound cool—based on individualized client goals? I’m looking forward to exploring answers to that question with you over the next six months.

For my first official blog post, I’d like to share a transitional song, “It’s A Beautiful Day for Music,” that I wrote and introduced to my clients. Many individuals with ASD struggle during transitions, so the purpose of this song is to reinforce the schedule and to bring awareness to the current session time. However, this song can easily be adapted for use as a movement or instrument playing activity.

I am providing you with a recording of me singing the song as well as an image of a visual aid that you might find helpful. I hope you enjoy “It’s A Beautiful Day for Music” and can find a way to implement it within your own practice!

Visual Aid for “It’s A Beautiful Day for Music”