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Music therapy yields results for kids with special needs

WEST SALEM, WI - Like any music class, Amy Shaack's gives kids an opportunity to have their voice heard. But for Shaack's students, the concept takes on a whole new meaning.

"Communication is vital," said Rachael Pierce, whose 6-year-old daughter, Ruby Anne, attends the music class. "We live in a talking word, and communication is difficult for kids with Down Syndrome."

Ruby Anne and her classmates all have Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that impairs growth and often makes speech development difficult. Shaack's class works as a music therapy group that parents say have helped their children make leaps and bounds across a range of academic and social skills.

"I can't even separate music and speech, because they've just been so integral," Pierce said. "[Ruby Anne's] been able to sing things because she can actually say them."

Ruby Anne has been attending Shaack's music class for more than three years, and she also sees Shaack for weekly music lessons. Thanks to Shaack and her musical touch, Pierce says her daughter first learned to spell her name in the West Salem classroom.

"Everybody relates everything to music so much better, and it just clicks with kids with disabilities," Pierce said.


It's not just speech skills that Ruby Anne and her friends are learning in the music therapy group. Shaack said she's seen progress in motor skills, including writing and playing instruments. But perhaps more importantly, the class helps students focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.

"It's not about what they can't do, it's what they can do," Shaack said. "Even if they can't sing the lyrics of the song, they can still do the actions to ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider.' Or they can play the instrument, maybe not in rhythm, but that's not the point."

According to Pierce, music therapy for kids with special needs hasn't caught on in western Wisconsin like it has in other parts of the state, but she's hoping Shaack's class will gain more steam in the La Crosse area. For now, Ruby Anne and her classmates will continue to meet monthly to sing, dance and play instruments – and learn valuable skills along the way.

"They want to communicate, and they want to tell you everything they know," Shaack said. "They may just not have the ability to."

Shaack's hoping the class will continue to help her students gain that ability through music.

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