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Perfect Pitch

Julie Reaver’s methods are music to her students’ ears

Music has the ability to move people in different ways, something that is especially true for those with disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. In her 13 years as a music therapist in Cumberland County, Julie Reaver says this is why she feels a special calling to her job.

Reaver’s work began at the Dorothy Spainhour Center and later expanded into the Cumberland County School System, thanks in part to a grant from the Partnership for Children.

Each week Reaver goes into preschool classes of 10 to 12 exceptional children and spends 30 minutes working with each group. Some of the classes are structured specifically for autistic children while others are blended with children who have other disabilities. Reaver’s main purpose with the preschoolers is to use music to help them achieve their goals. She works with autistic preschoolers to improve their awareness of themselves and others. Given the speech delay, she said they do a lot of singing and silly sound making with songs.

“The autistic children are generally very responsive to music,” Reaver said. “They like the organization of the sounds, they like the structure of the sound itself and the song that they know. Autistic children respond very well to structure in their day following a schedule.”

Reaver explained how music plays into that structure, as each song has a beginning, a middle and an end. For example, they always begin the class with ‘the hello song’ and end with ‘the goodbye song’.

One memory that sticks out through the years for Reaver was when she was working with a little girl who was non verbal, and during ‘the hello song’ she had each student say their name. The little girl spoke her name and the teachers gasped, with one tearing up because it was the first time they’d ever heard the child speak. Reaver said it was a ‘light bulb moment’ in her career.

Besides awareness, she works on speech patterns, emotions — namely, identifying them and learning ways to express them — and overall expression through music for non-verbal children.

“No matter how high- or low-functioning they are, there is some way, or with some instrument that the therapist can use to incorporate that person into the group,” Reaver said. “They can have a successful social experience even though they are not talking, gaining a sense of pride,” she said.

For some classes she also incorporates dance and movement into the instruction to help students work on fine and gross motor skills.

“The therapy comes through the musical experience that I’m bringing to these children. Music is my avenue, or vehicle, to how I communicate and work with them,” Reaver said.

Reaver doesn’t follow a curriculum because her goal is not to teach them traditional music concepts, but rather to use the music to help them express themselves. She often must think on her feet and change her plan around if the kids are having an off day and the lesson is not clicking with them.

“I try to meet the children where they are that day,” she said.