What a viral video of a Twin Cities boy with autism singing to ‘Old Town Road” shows about the power of music

"With music, you engage with others and that's a universal language."

Sloane Martin
June 11, 2019 - 7:26 am
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There’s a good chance you've seen or heard about the viral tweet from our own Sheletta Brundidge, showing her mostly nonverbal autistic son singing along to the song, "Old Town Road” by rapper Lil Nas X, with country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

The video of 4-year-old Daniel has been viewed over 1.4 million times with more than 40,000 likes and retweets combined since she published the post  on June 4.

But while the dramatic breakthrough was captured on video, the process that led Daniel to that moment began at least three years ago, when he started speech therapy. His therapist, Jana Smith, says that when Daniel first started his sessions, he was 1, already diagnosed with autism, and had no verbal language.

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Over time—and with lots of sessions—Daniel slowly made progress. Songs did play a role from the beginning, as he eventually learned to repeat fragments of verses immediately after a therapist had sung them. The next building block came when his therapy began to include songs as part of interactive exercise designed to help him build his vocabulary. For instance, the therapist might start a song but then stop singing abruptly, prompting Daniel to either say the missing word, or point to an image that depicted the object in question.

What Daniel had never done, however, even after almost four years of therapy, was to start singing on his own.

“This is a huge breakthrough. It's so great to see that he was able to do this,” Smith said shortly after the video was released. “Not only did it show that he could say the words but the fact that he initiated it... big jump for independent communication.”

It took a lot of persistent work and patience for Daniel’s “Old Town Road” breakthrough to happen, and it undoubtedly helped that he had such an experienced and determined mother. Brundidge has three children on the autistic spectrum. With each of them, she worked with therapists,  experimenting and carefully observing to see what sparked her child’s interest. With her five year-old-daughter Cameron, it was reading, and with her six-year-old son Brandon, it ended up being drawing. But with Daniel, she wasn’t sure what approach would work, at least until the now famous moment captured on a cell phone video.

“We didn't know what we could use to reach Daniel because he's so severe. We tried art, bu that didn't work. We had tried reading and that worked a little bit, but we hit a roadblock at about three or four words,” Brundidge  recalled. “And you know, they play songs but he hasn't picked up on any of the regular nursery rhymes the kids love to listen to. But it's something about “Old Town Road” — the tune, the lyrics, the catchy phrases and the whistling — that it just touched his spirit and he just came alive.”

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Smith said that in her experience, music often plays an important role in reaching autistic children, and that the practice of using music therapy to treat autism has “exploded” over the past few years.

"It all starts with that engagement piece—if a kid is not engaged in their world at all, they don't really have the desire to communicate or make that relationship with another person. And with music, you engage with others and that's a universal language,” she said.

There are of several providers  in the Twin Cities area for music therapy geared toward children with autism, like Tone Works Music Therapy and Fraser Academy.

And there are also independent therapists who specialize in autism treatment, like My Baun of Music Therapist at Music Sense LLC. She says it can be important for autisitc children to start such treatment early, as was the case with Daniel, since singing and interacting with music can help them develop in several ways at once. Just singing and clapping to a song covers  speech, coordination and even social skills.

“And if they do a group session, with a family members involved, it's a perfect opportunity for the siblings to be able to interact with one another in a more natural setting, with music as something that they can both enjoy,” Baun said

Why is singing so often an important part of treating autism? The fact that it’s just fun has a lot to do with it, according to Baun.

"It's such an easy way of learning. It's not forced. It's not something that you have to practice. It just comes naturally through enjoyment,” she said.

Brundidge is now looking for a music therapist for Daniel, though she’s worried that her insurance may not cover it. Regardless, she’ll keep trying to find something that works, and she hopes other parents with special needs children do the same.

“Keep pushing, keep looking, keep pressing, keep asking questions, keep trying new and different things,” she said. “Even if it seems unconventional, even if it's something as simple as listening to a catchy country song or drawing or playing an instrument or building with Legos. Whatever it is that your child likes to do, use that method to reach them. Don't dismiss anything that you see your child doing and growing in because it may be the catalyst for change for them,” she said.

Smith hopes that other parents are inspired by Brundidge’s determination, and the breakthrough it helped make possible for her son.

“There's always hope. I mean, never give up hope. It took four years for this to happen. Some kids it takes eight years. Some kids even more than that, but don't give up. Sometimes it's as simple as “Old Town Road,” she said.