Therapeutic Listening for Autism & Sensory Processing: Does it Work?

Therapeutic Listening for Autism & Sensory Processing Disorder | If you’re looking for autism and sensory processing therapy ideas, the Therapeutic Listening Program might be for you. Used in occupational therapy, this is an at-home treatment parents can perform to help improve a child’s attention, self-regulation, communication and social skills, posture, and fine and gross motor skills. Click for our personal experience - the pros, cons, and gains we've enjoyed!

I was first introduced to Therapeutic Listening as a therapy option for autistic children with sensory processing disorder in June 2017. My daughter had started to develop an intolerance to loud noises, and when I asked her Occupational Therapist (OT) for advice on additional autism spectrum therapies that might help, she spoke highly of a 12-week Therapeutic Listening program coupled with Sensory Integration that she was trained in. She promised to send me more information on the program as she felt my daughter would benefit greatly from it, but warned me it would be a big commitment on my part in order for it to be effective.

Now, if you know anything about me, you are fully aware that the moment someone gives me a challenge, I find it difficult to back down. I may scream and cry and threaten to quit along the way, but I’ll be damned if I don’t follow through!

So I filled out a 15-page Functional Listening Questionnaire, invested in the requisite headphones and MP3 player, and got it done.

I’ve wanted to share our experience with Therapeutic Listening for autism and sensory processing for some time as I feel we got a lot out of it and I learned a lot along the way. I highly recommend the program to anyone who has a child with sensory processing challenges, and hope this information helps you understand what Therapeutic Listening is all about and gives you some pointers on how to get the most out of the program without losing your sanity in the process!

What is Therapeutic Listening for Autism and Sensory Processing?

When I initially committed to the 12-week Therapeutic Listening Program under the guidance of our OT, I had one goal: to find a way for my child to tolerate loud noises better. Group activities like gym class had become unbearable for her, and while wearing noise-reducing headphones was certainly an option, I wanted to find a way for my child to integrate with her peers without standing out.

As it turns out, Therapeutic Listening coupled with Sensory Integration can help with a whole host of challenges, and can improve things like:

  • Attention
  • Self-regulation
  • Communication
  • Social skills
  • Posture
  • Fine motor control

There is a real science behind Therapeutic Listening, but the basic premise is that when children with autism and sensory processing challenges listen to specifically modulated and filtered music through special headphones while simultaneously engaging in sensory integration activities, they learn how to differentiate which sounds are important to listen to, and which they should ignore.

How we listen has a huge impact on many aspects of our lives, including our behavior, and the electronically modified music used in this program helps generate self-organization in relation to the nervous system.

Who Can Benefit from Therapeutic Listening?

As mentioned, I initially thought Therapeutic Listening was designed to help kids with sound intolerances, but I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that it can help with a lot of other challenges as well. If your child struggles with any of the following, this program may be a viable option:

  • Self- and emotional-regulation
  • Transitions
  • Rigidity and flexibility
  • Picky eating
  • Sleep
  • Communication
  • Social interactions and connectedness
  • Affection
  • Bilateral integration (using 2 hands together to complete a task)
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Self-stimulatory behavior

How Does Therapeutic Listening Work?

It’s surprisingly easy! Once you commit to the program with a trained OT, you will purchase a pair of specialized headphones as well as an MP3 player, and your OT will select CDs for your child to listen to based on her needs. The program is highly individualized, and your OT will change disks along the way based on progress, resistance, etc. We changed disks every 2 weeks.

In terms of implementation, I’ve read varying accounts online, but our program was broken down into two 30-minute sessions each day, 7 days a week. For each session, my daughter was required to engage in movement, with a preference for vestibular and core activities to help ground her.

Does Therapeutic Listening for Autism and Sensory Processing Work?

If you’re looking for a quick answer to this question, mine would be a resounding YES, but since all treatments and therapies tend to have their pros and cons, my answer is a bit more complex.

Overall, we saw a lot of positive gains throughout the program, specifically in regards to:

  • Sleep
  • Communication and self-expression
  • Affection
  • Rigidity and self-regulation
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Social interaction with peers

My daughter’s tolerance for noise has improved greatly as a result of the program, and I also noticed a decrease in certain self-stimulatory behaviors, although the ones my daughter has used for the bulk of her life remained unchanged.

We also saw some negatives along the way – some were side effects of Therapeutic Listening, and others were just basic pain points with the intensity of the program itself – and I thought it would be worthwhile to list them all below.

7 Things to Know About Therapeutic Listening for Autism and Sensory Processing

If you are considering Therapeutic Listening to help your child with autism and sensory processing, here are some things to keep in mind!

It’s a big time commitment

While our OT had warned me the program would require a huge time commitment on my part, it wasn’t until we were about 3 weeks in that I fully appreciated just how much our lives would be altered throughout the program. My daughter was in between school and summer camp for the first 2 weeks, and we had fun setting up obstacle courses and finding ways to keep things fresh each day, but once summer camp was underway, I started to find it tedious. We had to wake up earlier to fit in a session before rushing off to camp, and bedtime often got pushed later to accommodate our second session, which made us both cranky and tired as the week wore on. I also found our weekends were less relaxing and spontaneous as we were always conscious of trying to fit both sessions into our day.

Knowing what I now know, I feel the program would’ve been less overwhelming if we had made the commitment during the winter months when we’re less interested in spending time outdoors and have fewer vacations and social commitments planned.

You have to do it everyday

In order for the program to be successful, you need to be consistent, so unless your child has an ear infection or is feeling sick, the expectation is that you complete two 30-minute sessions per day. That’s 168 sessions over a 12-week period. Just sayin’!

It’s expensive

I purchased our headphones and MP3 player through our OT, and I think they ran about $300 in total (don’t quote me on that). In addition, we paid for OT sessions/consulting throughout the 12 weeks, and I ended up buying a lot of props to keep my daughter engaged and interested. I anticipate the program probably cost us $1,000-$1,500 when all was said and done, and while I feel this was money VERY well spent, it’s not feasible for everyone. I urge you to check and see if your insurance covers such expenses if you cannot make the investment yourself as you may be able to get partial or complete coverage!

You may notice a temporary increase in negative behaviors

We changed disks every 2 weeks during the program, and over the course of the 12 weeks, I noticed my daughter’s behavior would initially improve with each disk change and then fall apart by about day 7. From there, we would see increased improvements each day, with the most significant gains occurring right before the next disk change. I started to dread disk changes for this reason, but learned over time to be more open with our OT and plan ahead to ensure we weren’t introducing complex disks at important times. For example, when school started and I expressed fears over behavioral challenges in the classroom, our OT opted for easier disks and we saw no disruptions in our daughter’s behavior whatsoever.

It can be hard to keep kids motivated

I am very fortunate that my daughter is highly motivated by her toys, and I was able to create character-based games and activities each day to keep things fresh and interesting. I also did a ton of research and had lots of great ideas to draw from (see my favorite vestibular activities HERE and my favorite core activities HERE). If your child isn’t motivated with toys and games, another option is to setup a reward chart. You might give small rewards (10 extra minutes on the iPad) for each completed session with the option to earn a bigger reward (trip to the ice cream store, TV download, etc.) at the end of the week if all of the sessions are completed without resistance.

It can be hard to keep yourself motivated

While I highly recommend Therapeutic Listening for autism and sensory processing, I’m the first to admit I grew really sick and tired of it by about week 9. My husband works long hours and travels a lot, and keeping myself motivated was hard, particular on days when my daughter was tired and experiencing behavioral side effects. What I found helpful was keeping a log of all of the gains we saw throughout the program and hearing others comment on the changes they saw after not seeing my daughter for extended periods of time. I was so caught up in the day-to-day that I couldn’t see past whatever was happening in the moment, and having periodic reminders that my efforts were not in vain kept me sane. Making sure we were all getting enough sleep and delegating tasks wherever possible also helped, as did the occasional glass of wine!

It’s not a cure

As parents and caregivers, it is in our nature to be on the lookout for different treatments and therapies to help our exceptional children, and while they each have their individual benefits, it’s important to be realistic. There is currently no known cure for autism or sensory processing disorder, and I think it’s important to be cognizant of this fact before committing to the Therapeutic Listening program. Like most other therapies, the results will vary, and while we certainly saw improvements in many aspects of our daughter’s life as a result of this program, your experiences may not be the same. At the end of the day, the only thing you can do is try, and if there’s a remote chance you’ll see positive changes in one or more areas of your child’s life, I think it’s worth considering if your schedule and wallet can afford it.

Additional Things to Consider About Therapeutic Listening

Whether you’re still on the fence about Therapeutic Listening for autism and sensory processing, or have already made the commitment and just want some pointers from a mom who lived and breathed it for 12 weeks, here are some additional things to consider:

  • Find ways to make each session fun. Use reward charts, incorporate your child’s favorite activities and toys, and think of each session as a way to spend quality, one-on-one time with your child.
  • Get your child involved! When we first started the program, I spent 10+ minutes brainstorming and setting up before each session, which put a lot of the onus on me. I eventually learned that set-up and clean-up offered great opportunities to engage my daughter’s vestibular system, and once I empowered her to come up with activities and games she’d like to play together, she became much more engaged and willing to participate.
  • Ask for help. If you cannot trade off with a spouse or family member to give you some relief, find other ways to lighten your load. Employ a cleaning service, order takeout a couple of times a week, hire a babysitter…do whatever it is you need to do to take some of the responsibility off your shoulders so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Focus on one therapy at a time. As much as we want to dive head first in as many therapies and treatment plans as we can to help our children, taking on too much too soon can be detrimental to their progress. It will be difficult to know which therapy yielded the best results, and if 2 or more treatments contradict each other or cause negative side effects, we can do more damage than good. My advice? Stick to one change at a time.
  • Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep. While the Therapeutic Listening Program may be time-consuming to parents and caregivers, it can be downright exhausting for kids. Between all of the sensory stimulation and movement activities, they will be more mentally and physically drained at the end of the day, so make sure everyone is getting as much sleep as possible.
  • Find ways to keep things fun. The more interested and engaged your child is, the easier each session will be, so put your creative hat on and think outside the box!
  • Plan ahead. If you are traveling or have another important even coming up, make sure to communicate this to your OT ahead of time. Certain disks can be more challenging than others, and with some warning, your child’s program can be adjusted to ensure the easier disks are scheduled for periods during which you’d like to minimize the possibility of negative side effects.

Phew! This was a lot of information at once, but I hope my experiences with Therapeutic Listening for autism and sensory processing proves useful to you.

Frank Zappa once said, ‘Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.’ Along those same lines, Amanda Rae Ross also said, ‘When a family focuses on ability instead of disability, all things are possible…Love and acceptance is key. We need to interact with those with autism by taking an interest in their interests.’

In other words, we need to stop looking at children with autism as broken puzzle pieces that need to be fixed, and instead view their individual challenges as a window of opportunity to help them make greater sense of the complicated world around them.

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Therapeutic Listening for Autism & Sensory Processing Disorder | If you’re looking for autism and sensory processing therapy ideas, the Therapeutic Listening Program might be for you. Used in occupational therapy, this is an at-home treatment parents can perform to help improve a child’s attention, self-regulation, communication and social skills, posture, and fine and gross motor skills. Click for our personal experience - the pros, cons, and gains we've enjoyed!

And if you’re look for more tips and tricks to help your child with autism and sensory processing disorder, please follow our Autism board where we share all kinds of great information we find each day!

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