Disabled sound out the music

June 21, 1996

A University of Warwick lecturer is investigating how sound can help disabled children with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties to communicate.

For the past two years, Phil Ellis, a senior lecturer in the university's Institute of Education, has been working with a small group of children at a special needs school in Warwickshire.

He is a pioneer in sound therapy, a non-interventionist method that encourages activity and interaction in children with learning difficulties by stimulating their inner needs.

A key element of Dr Ellis's research is the Soundbeam, a device that emits an ultrasonic beam of variable length. Connected to a synthesiser or similar electronic musical instrument, it produces sound when the beam is interrupted.

The children, with whom Dr Ellis works with have poor motor control as a result of cerebral palsy, but a movement even as minor as the flutter of an eyelid is enough to break the beam and produce a sound. For some at the school, the Soundbeam has given them control of a situation for the very first time in their lives.

First developed in 1988 by Bristol composer Edward Williams, the device allows disabled children to "compose" their own music. Dr Ellis has been videotaping his weekly sessions with the children to document what he described as their significant development over the two years.

"Children who perhaps don't concentrate very much on anything will regularly be focused and involved for around 20 minutes every week responding to sound," he said. But it is important to find a range of sounds that please or "resonate aesthetically" with each child.

Through careful sound selection, Dr Ellis said, it was possible to develop awareness through sound. Physical control of muscle and movement also resulted.

A video, to be released next month, will feature excerpts of the Warwickshire sessions and demonstrate what is possible with the Soundbeam.

Although his research was focused on producing materials for teachers in special needs schools, Dr Ellis said he also wanted to enable non-specialist teachers to make use of the Pounds 1,000 device, which has been purchased by a number of UK schools. Funding is being sought for further sound therapy research.

Monitoring the electrical activity in the brains of disabled children using equipment such as the Soundbeam would be the next phase of investigation.

"We can see from the video significant moments and changes in behaviour - I want to know what's going on in the brain," Dr Ellis explained. This would require another two to three years of research to establish a methodology and determine actual neurological activity.

Sound therapy was separate from but complemented other therapies such as speech, physio or occupational.

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