Musicians see up close the difference music can make for children
By Jim Shilander
Music has always been a way to get young people excited. But a local organization is trying to move beyond just exciting the crowd to help kids dealing with autism and other developmental disorders bring out their inner superstar.
Rock the Autism was born two years ago as a way for local musicians to come together and make a difference, after its founders saw first hand the effect that music could have.
Rocky Neidhardt started the organization late in 2010, after seeing the effect music had on the child of a friend, Joe Santley, a member of the organization’s board of directors.
“He (Luke Santley) sat right down on the drum set and did a perfect drum roll,” Neidhardt recalled. Right away, Neidhardt explained, he saw that music could make a difference in reaching autistic children and adults.
Music has been shown as an effective therapy to help those with autism, as it helps to improve development in a number areas, such as word recognition and pre-writing skills. It also serves as an effective way to help students interact with one another and “neurotypical” children.
After making an appearance at Celebration of Surf in 2011, Neidhardt said the city has fully embraced what the organization is trying to do. It was also at that point that the organization first got together with the Boys & Girls Club of the South Coast Area, where each week, autistic, special needs and non-special needs children come together to sing, get music lessons and play together. The group has been working with students at the Boys & Girls Club for over a year.
“That’s been one of the real breakthroughs,” Neidhardt said. Early on, he said, the program was split into two rooms, one for autistic and special needs children, and the other for neurotypical children. But that separation is no longer necessary, Neidhardt said. “The neurotypical children have fully embraced the special needs and autistic kids. They’re all friends and they’re pulling for each other.”
Neidhardt said he remembered growing up essentially separated from special needs students while in school. “We never really interacted with them. This kind of shatters that.”
Neidhardt said that while the organization has used a number of different musical instruments, including bass guitar and piano, drums remain the most popular instrument option, as they were with Luke.
“They thrive on them,” Neidhardt said. “They usually just line up for it, and we usually have a great drum instructor to help them.” Initially, Neidhardt said he’d been told that drums might be problematic for some autistic children due to the noise. “They said it might be too much for them, that they’d run from the sound.” Neidhardt said. “We’ve had quite the opposite experience. We have a lot of kids who come with headphones or earmuffs on, and when they sit down, they’ll take them off and turn up the volume on the drums.”
The electronic drum set, along with a bass guitar, were donated to the group by an Italian company, Mark Bass and Mark Drum. Neidhardt said the value of the equipment was in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Neidhardt said his musician friends were eager to help when the organization started. He’s played with a number of them for decades. As a group, he said, they have been happy to embrace the opportunity to play with children, especially once they realized the difference that it could make.
A number of kids are also quick to grab hold of a microphone, he noted, singing along with the beats and making up songs.
Tammy-Jo Leonard, a friend of Neidhardt’s, said she knew the positive effect music could have after seeing how music had helped bring her own son out of his shell.
“It’s something we’ve always believed in,” Leonard said. “Once you see the look on their faces, the love of it, it’s amazing. It’s such a healthy, therapeutic outlet for them.”
Since starting at the Boys & Girls Club, Leonard said the organization has expanded its reach, doing events at both San Clemente High School and Dana Hills High School that include not only students in those schools’ special education programs, but also participants in the Best Buddies program, which provides events for adults with developmental disabilities. The group is hoping to work with the Capistrano Unified School District and other schools to expand its local reach beyond the communities of South Orange County.
Megan Theodorou’s son Alex has been attending classes at the Boys & Girls Club for the last year. She said her son has made remarkable progress with the help of the program.
“It’s been a real game changer for him,” Theodorou said. “It’s really fostered his natural abilities. As the mother of an autistic child, you’re always hoping their strengths will find a way to show through.”
Wendy Casteel is an educator at the Boys & Girls Club. She said that due to budget cutbacks, fewer students might have the opportunity to be exposed to music regularly at school, so any opportunity to get to play and learn about music and instruments is an important one. And the children at the club are happy to have the opportunity, she said.
“They love it, it’s a really big deal here,” Casteel said. “When they (Rock the Autism) weren’t coming over Christmas break, they were pretty sad.”
Neidhardt said the group is currently focusing on raising funds for their own building, where they could provide classes for autistic and special needs children. Neidhardt said the space could be used by bands for rehearsal space, which could help pay for the building’s use, but the focus would remain on providing the opportunity for youngsters. That might include the opportunity to record songs, Neidhardt said. It was also very important, he said, to be able to provide the service free of charge, since other organizations charged high dollar amounts for similar therapies. The group would continue its classes and other efforts at the Boys & Girls Club and in other venues as well, Neidhardt said.
The group is also looking to expand beyond Orange County. Neidhardt said he’d been active on social media, especially on Facebook, which has allowed him to take the message and goals of the organization worldwide.
“Facebook has really been amazing,” Neidhardt said. “I’ve really been hitting it hard, talking to people all over the world, like India, Russia and Australia.” That interaction has also lead to serious inquiries about expanding the organization elsewhere in the United States. Neidhardt said he’d received serious inquiries about starting Rock the Autism chapters in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Sacramento. The organization received 501c3 nonprofit status in 2011.
For more information about the group, visit its website, www.rocktheautism.org