While there are many different listening therapies out there, I’m going to discuss the one that I have had the most experience implementing in a clinical setting, and just happen to be certified in (I know, fancy, huh?). This program is called Therapeutic Listening ®. (TL)
So you are probably wondering what this whole listening therapy business is and exactly how it works. You are not alone. Most parents have only a vague idea of the program or have only heard it amongst the therapy “buzzwords” fluttering about.
TL is a program that uses music as a “tool” to access the nervous system to help make changes. If you are familiar with sensory integration, or “sensory diets”, then you are already familiar with this idea. Just like we use “heavy work” like push-ups as a tool for regulating a child’s arousal level, a listening program uses music.
First and foremost, music is inherently therapeutic. You can’t deny that music can change your mood. Any remotely emotional moment set to some uplifting music will leave me crying like a baby in a matter of seconds.
So anyway, the music for this program has been specially “modified”, meaning that it is regular music (Think “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, or Mozart, Bach, etc…) that has been run through a filter that highlights the portions of the music that would normally capture someone’s attention.
As you listen to the music, it sounds like someone is messing with the bass and treble knobs on your stereo system. For most of us, this constant change in frequency would drive us crazy, but for the kids listening, it assists them in learning to tune-in to the music. This is essentially the first step in learning to tune-in to what is important in their environment as well.
Children then start to feel more organized due to the music, as it essentially teaches their bodies to know what calm feels like. Being in a regulated state on a frequent basis is supposed to train their body to stay in this state. The hope is that eventually the children will know how to get to that happy place of organization by themselves.
There is much more to the program than this simplified explanation, but for the sake of this post I’ll keep it short.
My main focus is letting parents know what lessons I’ve learned over the years of implementing this program. Here’s what you should probably know before you get started:
1. It’s intensive.
We are talking 20-30 minutes, twice a day, seven days a week, people. That is a commitment! The program can be adjusted based on your child’s needs. In fact, the whole point of this program is that it has the flexibility to be tailored to each individual.
However, you aren’t going to see the same benefits if your child listens only once a day versus twice a day. Parents ask me all the time if it won’t “work” if they don’t do the program as frequently as suggested. The child will still be reaping the benefits of listening to the music; it’s just that as with all things prescribed in therapy, repetition is the key to make changes within the connections in the brain.
2. It’s expensive.
Now, every clinic that I’ve been to seems to do this program a little differently. For the most part, parents have to invest in the equipment for the program. This includes specific headphones and an mp3 player or CD player (depending on what media type the clinic uses). Then the music selections typically come from a rental library from the clinic.
There are two choices of headphones from the company that produces this program, Vital Links. One is around $65 dollars, but only comes with a 90 day warranty. These headphones are slightly looser and don’t have as great of a fit on the child’s head. While no one has outright complained about these headphones, the parents that bought these headphones knew that their child wasn’t as particular about what went on their heads.
The other headphones, for $145, are sturdy and more comfortable. And they also come with a 2 year warranty.
And yes, you have to get one of those choices (or find a pair of headphones that meets the exact same specifications). To be honest, you are probably better off just going with one of the Vital Links choices because it’s less hassle in the long run to compare specifications.
Why do you need these specific headphones? Regular headphones are not going to capture the wide range of frequencies that are used in the program. These are the frequencies that force the child to “tune in” to the music. So playing TL music on headphones that don’t reach those frequencies are basically rendering the program useless.
Hopefully, your clinic has the music selections stored on small “chips”, like an SD card in a camera, and these can go into an mp3 player that sits on the child’s headphones. No extra cords or tune belt for a CD player.
Again, it has to be a specific mp3 player that plays the SD cards. Mp3 formats (like on an iPod) cut off at a lower frequency, causing the same problem that I explained with lower quality headphones.
A tip- buy the mp3 player online on Amazon or at a store like Target; it’s much less expensive than through the company.
The music itself is usually rented from a library of selections from the clinic, hospital, or school. Since the selections are changed every two weeks or so, it would be ridiculous of a parent to try to buy each chip at $40 each. The rental fee may be for every selection borrowed, or on a monthly basis.
3. Equipment will break.
I know, I know, and you just shelled out all that money. But listen, more than half the time something breaks. The nice thing is that Vital Links is super nice about replacing things under warranty. If you buy the expensive headphones, they will request that you send them back for repair. This usually takes at least a week or two to get them back.
The cheaper headphones, (if broken within the 90 day warranty) are usually just replaced by a new shipment. However, I’ve also had a client break the headphones just out of the 90 day window, and thus had to buy a whole new set of headphones. It’s a gamble either way.
The mp3 player seems to be the biggest pain. It will do strange things like stop playing in the middle of a song, freeze up completely, or just shut itself off at random times. This player has frustrated me to no end, especially when parents look to me for tech support. (Hey, I’m not the electrical engineer here, sorry.)
But I have spent some time on the phone with Vital Links trying to fix these issues. My first suggestion if your mp3 player goes on the fritz is to hold the power button for around 30 seconds to re-set the player. I’ve also just let the battery drain down until it shuts itself off, then re-charge.
The player is covered for 30 days through Vital Links if you buy it through them. However, if you buy it from a store, opt for the warranty. I’ve had someone go through 3 of these players because they each had some weird defect.
4. The good comes with the bad.
Be prepared for new behaviors to emerge during the program that might be seen as “negative”. The theory behind this is “disorganization before reorganization”. As new skills are learned rapidly due to the program, the child might have a hard time figuring out what to do with it all.
They compare this stage to toddlers and teenagers, perhaps struggling to understand newfound independence, or just a transition period. Check with your child’s OT to determine if your child is in the process of learning to handle new skills, or the music selection might just be a bad fit.
I worked with one young boy that said to his mom, “I don’t understand why I’m sad!” while he was listening to a more emotional music selection. However, he worked through it, gaining more emotional connectedness with his family.
5. There is NO guarantee that this will work for your child.
I’ll admit that I’m mildly skeptic about this program, or any program for that matter. The trouble is that it’s so hard to put a definite pin on what changes a child. You are completing the program within therapy, so its inevitable that other interventions are happening at the same time.
I’ve seen some clients make nice gains, while others didn’t see much change at all. Honestly, it depends on the mother’s reports to know what changes are being made. With such a subjective measuring tool, it can be hard to tell. Some people point out everything that the child does and say, “YES! It’s the listening!” While others say, “Oh, we’ve been working on that forever and maybe now he finally got it.” The excitement varies depending on the observer.
Overall, people who have done the program have been glad they at least gave it a try. Some children have improved processing speeds and overall attention. Some have emerged with new language and have met speech and language goals more quickly than they had in the past. Others have seemed more “in-tune” with the world around them, as if their scope of awareness had widened.
Now, do I think this is program is the end-all be-all? No, of course not. Have you learned nothing about me yet? When I got back from this course I declared “Therapeutic Listening for everyone!!!” and I was pretty darn sure it was going to change everyone’s lives. However, I was quickly humbled when I suggested it with some of my older clients. Of course their parents had already tried it in the past, and most weren’t interested in trying it again.
My overall advice would be that if you can afford the program, or if you have it available, give it a try. I haven’t seen much in the way of negative side effects from attempting the program. If you think about it, even if you have to spend $200 for the equipment, you get to keep it, or possibly sell it back to another parent. Plus, for some people, that’s the equivalent to a few co-pays in therapy for a program you get to do intensively at home. It might just be worth your time, money, and efforts.