Grassroots charity promoting the right for people with learning disabilities to have a choice about how they live their lives

Music as the Great Equaliser

21
Apr
2017

A guest post by Jenny Holt

Musicians know the power of music, but they may not have considered that those with disabilities feel that power just as much as they do – maybe even more. Music has a calming effect on those with sensory processing issues and can provide a common ground for those with social anxiety.

music and inclusion

Musical events often provide a place for those who have learning disabilities or who lack social skills to interact with their typically developing peers in ways they may otherwise be unable to. In fact, music therapy is becoming a popular way to help autistic children.

Professional musicians can further the cause of music as inclusion by understanding a couple of key points.

Sensory Issues

Many people on the autism spectrum have sensory processing difficulties. They may perceive sound as being excessively loud or lights as being overly bright. This can lead to sensory overload, making it difficult for the person to cope with this situation.

Live concerts are, by their nature, places of loud sounds and bright lights, making them challenging for those with sensory issues. In many cases, however, these sensory issues may be markedly decreased or even disappear altogether if the person is in a place where they truly want to be. In other words, someone with sensory processing disorder may become distressed when they hear a fire engine’s siren but may enjoy a concert by their favourite band, even if the noise level is similar.

music and inclusion

Social Skills

Another area in which people on the autism spectrum—as well as those with other learning disabilities—struggle is with social skills. It’s difficult for them to recognise what facial expressions mean and to interpret social cues. It can also be uncomfortable for them to be in an enclosed space, or too close to another person. Conversely, they may also stand too close to someone they don’t know, as the concept of personal space is difficult to grasp. As well as attending concerts, it is worth bearing these points in mind when planning a party for those with special needs, particularly when considering how many people to invite, the size of the venue and incorporating music as a form of entertainment. Striking a comfortable balance for your guests is key.

What Musicians Can Do

If people with autism or other learning disabilities struggle with loud sounds and bright lights and don’t like crowded places, it may seem as though a live concert is the last place they’d want to be. Surprisingly, this is not the case. The music transcends all of these difficulties and can bring people of all abilities together.

However, there are some things that professional musicians, promoters, and venues can do to make the experience better. Here are some tips:

  • Understand that there may be some people in the audience that need to adjust slowly to changes in volume or lighting. Starting off the show with the house lights on and dimming them gradually, and playing a soft song or two at the beginning of the set will help those with sensory processing disorders adjust.
  • If possible, provide an area where concert goers can have a little more personal space, and an exit if they need it. Some people don’t know how they’ll react until they get there, and they may want to get out quickly.
  • If the band is truly committed to inclusion, and there’s a significant population in the area that would benefit, consider offering a ‘sensory-friendly’ concert, in which house lights remain on and amps are at a lower volume than they would typically be.
  • Add some sensory-friendly merchandise to your selection. In addition to the t-shirts and CDs every band sells at their concerts, consider selling sunglasses and ear plugs as well. There are some new technology ear plugs designed for loud concerts that don’t muffle the sound; they just reduce the decibel level. And sunglasses can be worn at the show if the lights are too bright.

Music and musicians have long been champions of inclusion. Understanding the needs of those with learning disabilities continues this great tradition. 

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