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FIU student uses music to reach kids with autism

As Patricia Kayser strummed her nylon-string acoustic guitar for her brother, who has autism, she noticed the chords provoked an unexpected reaction from him.

“I would tell him to feel the guitar strings from time to time,” said Kayser, 23. “He started showing new emotions and touching things he didn’t touch before.”

Through his sister’s music, Christian, 12, showed signs of change in his socialization. He began to look at people directly in the eyes, felt more confidence with physical interaction and his mood improved.

“He became someone who tries to make himself understood without getting frustrated about people not really understanding everything he says,” said Kayser, who decided to start a new project to help more children like Christian.

In June, the Florida International University marketing major launched Music4Autism, which helps children with autism enhance their cognitive, physical and social skills by engaging in musical activities.

“There is no cure for autism, so all we can do is enrich their quality of life,” said Kayser, who lives in Doral.

To do that, Kayser reached out to Regina Orfila, executive director and president of Villa Lyan, her brother’s school.

The special needs school in Kendall is affiliated with Creative Children Therapy, a non-profit pediatric outpatient rehabilitation center co-founded by Orfila 10 years ago.

“I asked her, ‘Why don’t you start something with music? There is really a need,’” said Orfila, 61, also the grandmother of a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. “Unlike a therapist, an artist sets no limits to his methods.”

Kayser began to play for her brother’s schoolmates at Villa Lyan every Monday and Wednesday, along fellow friends and musicians. This allowed her to interact with her young audience by singing with them and handing them percussive instruments catered for children with special needs, such as shakers and tambourines.

“It’s not just about singing or playing the guitar,” said Kayser. “It’s about engaging them in the music and how that benefits them.”

While Kayser performs, Damian Borges, 17, who has been attending Villa Lyan since January, sings along and shakes maracas to the rhythm of the guitar’s strumming.

Annie Borges, Damian’s mother, was a child psychologist for 13 years before Damian was diagnosed at 3.

“As a baby, Damian wouldn’t blink through a Phil Collins concert,” said Borges, 51. “Music is the fiber of his soul.”

Leonard Elbaum, who has a degree in musical and physical therapy and has been a professor in this field for the past 30 years at Florida International University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences, explains why children with autism are so affected by music.

“The value of participation in musical activities is even greater for children that have difficulty with verbal communication, which is common among children with autism spectrum disorders,” said Elbaum, 61.

According to the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008, 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.

Dr. Carlos Gadia, associate medical director at Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Center, a referral center for the evaluation and treatment of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, gives some scientific insights behind music’s benefits to children with autism.

“There is certainly a number of children in the autistic spectrum that would not ‘talk’ to you or answer a question but are able to respond if asked in a ‘singing mode’ as part of a ‘song’ they learned,” said Gadia. “This might suggest that different pathways are involved in speech and singing.”

To Kayser, Christian’s difficulty with speech is yet another reason she uses singing as a form of therapy and understands many children in his position can also benefit from it, which is why she hopes to turn Music4Autism into a non-profit organization in the future.

The first step toward the goal to expand Music4Autism to a larger audience was the event “Music4Autism: The Hangout I” she recently hosted at the EuroSuites in Doral.

Twelve families of children with autism that go to Villa Lyan were invited, and all attended. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., everyone got to dance and mingle for Music4Autism’s cause.

Among the families who attended was the Borges family.

“I brought him because music is one of the things that gets a reaction out of Damian,” said Orlando Borges, 47, Damian’s father. “It makes his eyes sparkle.”