by Martin Ivanov

They have a sensitivity to sound and poor social interaction skills.I feel the most important thing in working with autistic kids is to meet them where they are. In their world, they are totally alone.

— Barry Bernstein

Over recent years I have presented the use of therapeutic drumming for autism in many towns in Bulgaria. A large number of specialists in this country, parents and autistic children were able to see the transforming power of rhythm. During two successive sessions I show first adults, then the children and their parents, a number of techniques connected with the therapy. These events are usually reported on the national and regional media and the most frequent question I am asked is: “What positive effect does rhythm have on autistic children?

In order to answer this question, first of all I have to explain my personal view of autism. It is my personal believe that this is not an illness, but rather a state of mind. Since everything around us is vibrations, our bodies, organs and thoughts also vibrate at a given frequency. Autistic children vibrate at a frequency different to that of other people. This creates a different state of mind leading to a behaviour which is less acceptable for society. It is important to note that living in this different state of vibrations, they can attain and process special information which unlocks incredible abilities.

In recent years horse therapy, (hippo-therapy) and dolphin therapy have become popular. You might wonder how these animals might be useful, but they really are able to perceive the world of autistic children and attune themselves to their frequency. However, they are unable to bring the children out of this state and bring them closer to the more acceptable standards of behaviour. This can be аchieved with rhythm.

In the form of having fun with percussion instruments we can attune ourselves to the level of vibrations of autistic children and meet them in a safe place – in their territory. Then we can gradually draw them out of their world and by means of rhythm we can work in the direction of positive changes.

Many of us cannot imagine what this altered state of mind is really like and how autistic children vibrate in a different way. For this reason I always begin my presentation with an example which demonstrates the process. This exercise is quite similar to the exercises connected with mental transmutation shown in this book, except that we use drums.

All the participants are arranged in a circle and each one of them has an instrument. I make a short presentation about drums and various other percussion instruments. I explain the non-verbal communication signs and invite the participants to close their eyes. Then I ask them to try and observe themselves.

How do they feel at the moment? What is their physical and psychological condition? Are they feeling any pain? If yes, what exactly? Do they have any specific emotions? Are they afraid of anything? Are they worried? What is their state of mind?

I need a few minutes for this preparatory part of the session, after which I take them through a vibration alchemy process, in which I literally bombard them with cascades of rhythmic emotions.

We all play and improvise together while I synchronize the groups in constantly altering tempos, timbres and dynamics. In actual fact what I offer them is a rhythm cocktail of mental elements and their properties with the basic aim of transforming the momentary mental states of the participants. Within the space of 15 minutes, dozens of rhythmic metamorphoses take place, ending with the development of a fast and steady rhythm.

When the room falls back into silence, I invite them to close their eyes again and to state their psychological and physical condition. Then I ask them:

Open your eyes and remember how you felt before the session. Is there any one in the room who believes that no change has taken place in their conscious mind?

No one has ever raised their hand to say that nothing has changed or that their emotions have remained unchanged. This is an exceptionally useful exercise, because the participants can consciously register the changes in the scale of their mental world and see that by the end of the process they are different. When they leave the room and meet other people who have not taken part in the rhythm circle, they definitely feel different from them.

In the same way, this difference becomes manifest in autistic children. They are enclosed within their own vibration world and very frequently their behavior goes beyond the framework of familiar stereotypes.

At such moments two of the greatest problems of autism are most noticeable. Autistic children are unable to focus their attention on one specific thing for any length of time, and they have a problem communicating with others. I would like to tell you a story which happened during one of the therapy demonstrations. I noticed him as I was bringing the drums into the room where the session was going to be held. There was a little boy running on his tiptoes up and down the long corridors of the buildings, shrieking and making all sorts of noise. He would occasionally stop and gesticulate with his arms. This seemed to provide him with the auto-stimulation he needed. He looked about 10 years old and I tried to talk to him. I saw that he could not talk and that he had difficulties communicating.

His parents were following him but they also appeared to have problems restraining and coping with him. They later told me that he communicated with no one and that it was almost impossible to focus his attention on anything for more than a few seconds. They also apologized to me in advance that they probably would not be able to remain in the drum circle, since Danny would not be able to focus for more than a minute.

I told them not to worry and started preparing for the rhythm session. When all the children gathered with their parents, I arranged them in a circle and gave them a drum each. The smaller children sat with their parents while the older children had their own chairs. There was one empty seat and someone was obviously missing. I looked around and saw that my friend, Danny, was missing. I then saw his father dragging him by the hand, and he was pulling away. I waited for them to sit down.

Danny sat on his father’s knee and there was a huge drum in front of them. It seemed as though the little boy was not going to be able to sit still for very long, but things changed radically.

This happened when I began to show different exercises with one hand and then with the other, and the children had to follow me. We touched the drums and made rhythmic sounds while I counted from one to four. Danny, who until a few moments before had been running tirelessly up and down the corridors, shrieking at the top of his voice, was now sitting in stunned silence! He was drinking in the information which he was receiving. His father was helping him play the drum and he occasionally took a turn with louder or softer sounds.


My friend Danny and his father

My friend Danny and his father

In this way Danny was communicating with the entire group and having fun at the same time. The father and son remained in the circle to the very end of the rhythm session, which lasted for almost half an hour. His father could not believe what had just happened in front of his very eyes. He could not recognize his son in this light – he was calm, focused and communicative. The most important thing in this process, in which the father was helping him to play and take part in the group, was that they created a relationship which until that moment had been impossible. Rhythm was that bridge which had crossed the gap between them. Danny’s father had tears of joy and excitement in his eyes.

A few weeks later, Danny began to come to me for individual rhythm therapy sessions. As soon as I opened the door, he smiled and came in. His parents told me that he did not like going anywhere, especially to strange places.

Rhythm had clearly done its job and Danny had grown to like me. I have always wondered why dolphins and horses have been able to achieve this special link with autistic children, while we “normal” people have difficulties.

This article is an excerpt from the book “Rhythm Alchemy” by Martin Ivanov