Former Rock Stars Develop App to Teach Music to Children with Autism

For some time now, research has pointed to the benefits of music therapy for children with autism. As an expressive medium, music aims to bridge the gap between autism and the world, highlighting its significance as a potential therapeutic intervention.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 59 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism. Being a complex developmental disorder, autism encompasses several impairments including persistent challenges in speech and nonverbal communication, accompanied by rigid, repetitive behaviors.

While each child living with autism experiences different aspects of the condition to varying degrees, one characteristic of autism that is seen frequently is an overactive sensory system. Yet, an overactive sensory system is not necessarily a bad thing. It can allow children with autism to enjoy things that the average individual would normally brush off. It may even help to explain the link between music and autism.

For quite a while now, research points to the benefits of music therapy for children with autism. Melodic and rhythmic patterns give these children a way to process auditory information and help to promote wellness by managing stress, improving communication, and enhancing memory. As an expressive medium, music aims to bridge the gap between autism and the world, highlighting its significance as a potential therapeutic intervention.

A looping canvas of infinite creation

Back in 2012, Steve Van Dam and Craig Honeycutt founded Light the Music, a tech start-up that makes fun apps for individuals to easily create, play, and share visual music, using content from their favorite performers. Most recently, the duo masterminded the ORO Visual Music app, which helps middle-school-age students with autism create unique sounds -- and visuals that go hand in hand with those sounds, This is an amazing basic learning assist for music theory.
The name ORO originates from Ouroboros, an ancient symbol representing a snake eating its own tail. The symbol stands for infinity, which is seen in the app itself. Using iPads, the children mix in different sounds, ultimately creating a loop of infinity-music.
Van Dam and Honeycutt are former rock stars from the band “Everything”, an alternative rock band famously known for its popular song “Hooch”. Today their focus is the classroom, and Van Dam happily takes on the role of teacher. “I get to take apart all of those building blocks and put them together like Legos on the app and figure out creative ways to teach music. It’s about more than music, though. Music helps these kids in other ways” he said.
One day a week, Van Dam makes his way to different schools to pass on the knowledge he learned from touring the world and to teach students with autism music theory basics such as melody, rhythm, and pitch. At the Faison School in Virginia, he teaches two half-hour classes each Monday. “Individuals with autism, one of the components of that disorder, have limited or restricted interest, so for our students ... it’s hard to expand their interest, but we saw success when we got involved with this” said Kathy Matthews, the vice president of educational outreach at The Faison Center.
Nowadays, ORO is making great strides around the globe. The opportunity to widen their musical interest and knowledge is something that continues to appeal to both Van Dam and Honeycutt and it is something that is taking its time to circle back around. “It’s expressive. You can say something about how you feel. It’s giving kids the opportunity to explore what they want to say” said Van Dam.

A chorus of different sounds

One organization that stands out for its commitment to sharing ‘harmony’ with autistic children is Rock the Autism.

Founded in 2010 by musician David “Rocky” Neidhardt III, Rock the Autism is a non-profit organization that focuses on an introduction to music and performance for special-needs children. The organization offers open sessions on a weekly basis during the summers at the Boys & Girls Club in San Clemente, as well as at Glennwood House in Laguna Beach and Ocean View School in Laguna Hills. Fun assemblies are also organized at local elementary and high schools along with other special events all through the year.

Rock the Autism aims to bring a safe and motivating approach to exploring more flexibility and spontaneity through jam sessions with adult musicians and children with autism. “One of the kids last night – severely autistic, totally nonverbal – I got him to play and start talking and start singing. It was just amazing. He was extending the length of eye contact, looking me in the eye, singing and talking with me as he was playing the drums. He just opened up” said Joey Santley, co-founder of Rock the Autism. The sessions tend to start out with 15 minutes of small jamming and then the children come up and sing with the musicians. Blues, reggae and 1950s-style rock and roll are played, and the children are especially interested in learning about older music, like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Santley and Neidhardt have put their hearts and souls into a program that aims to teach children not just about music, but also about tolerance and friendship. “I can just tell from when we started it, I’ve seen that almost all of these kids have totally come out of their shells. And there was no kind of music program down at the Boys & Girls Club before, and it’s really amazing—almost all of the Boys & Girls Club is involved now. We always have a line of kids waiting to sing, and we have the special-needs kids and the neurotypical kids altogether, which is really the beauty of our program.” said Neidhardt.
Driven by musical talent, the program has been thriving and the children have even learned to manage their schedules around it. “They know exactly what day and time it is. They are waiting at the door for it to start” said Andy Brosche, program director at the Boys & Girls Club in San Clemente. A large part of the program is the manner in which it allows children with autism to express and communicate more quickly and easily.
In the near future, Rock the Autism hopes to develop a program to train musicians so that accreditation is recognized and untiring efforts can spread. “We’re making breakthroughs” said Santley.