Teachers convinced that autistic children benefit from interacting with music and song can say goodbye to nursery rhymes and welcome a bhangra beat , thanks to the work of composer Jessica Curry. David Newnham reports
The boy with the ginger hair is not in the mood to listen to music, nor does he want to sit in a circle. In fact he does not want to sit anywhere, so he squats on the floor and bangs his forehead on the mat.
And although it would be nice to say that the music transforms him - that no sooner does the CD begin than he joins the other three boys in the circle - the reality is rather less dramatic. But then Connections was never meant to be a cure for autism. Rather, this new collection of songs, stories and games is a tool for teachers and carers who are convinced music can help autistic children to interact and communicate.
Now something about the Colours Game has caught the attention of the ginger-haired boy. For although he does not clap once during the "Clap Rap" song, and shows no interest in the "Traffic Song", he is watching as his support assistant waves a green scarf over his head, and his lips are making tiny movements where the words should be.
For composer Jessica Curry, who is visiting Hampshire Autistic Society's Hope Lodge school in Southampton to see how her music is being received, these are the almost imperceptible signs of progress that have motivated her for the past two years.
In 2003, when Ms Curry was 29, she told the Royal Society of Arts about her wish to compose music for children with autism. Every year, the RSA awards up to pound;30,000 to a budding entrepreneur for a project that will be of benefit to society, and her first task was to convince them that hers was that project.
"I wanted to make something that could be used in schools by teachers who have no musical expertise, as well as by parents who want to do something structured but don't want to play a drum or sit at a piano," she says. "I was shocked by how little there was out there."
But the RSA needed more than a sob story. The project had to make good business sense and be thoroughly researched. "I had to write an 80-page report, with Swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analyses and sales target - things I'd never heard of." Her efforts paid off, and with the prize secured it was time to find out in detail what people working with autistic children needed.
Not surprisingly, her first port of call was the National Autistic Society (NAS). But if Jessica Curry was expecting to be hailed as a heroine from the artistic world, galloping to the rescue, she was quickly corrected.
"They get a lot of people coming along saying they are going to cure autism; you only have to look at all the pills and injections advertised on the web," she says. "So they had to be sure that I wasn't just another one."
Richard Mills, the society's director of research, explained that Ms Curry would have to go into schools and do tests with psychologists present, send out questionnaires and carry out proper evaluations. "He was very rigorous, because he was rightly concerned for a very vulnerable group of people."
Having won the support of the NAS, she embarked on a year of research. "As a composer, I'd done lots of educational projects before, and worked with children with general learning difficulties in mainstream schools. But I didn't know very much about autism."
For the theoretical input, Jessica Curry found an ally in Dr Pam Heaton, of Goldsmiths College, London, who has studied musical cognition and is an expert on autism and other forms of abnormal development.
When it came to putting the theory into practice, the children and staff at Hope Lodge provided an ideal, if gruelling, testing ground. "I sent out questionnaires to all the society's schools very early on, asking what they would find useful," says Ms Curry. "One said, 'we need a song about colours' and another said they didn't have a goodbye song, and so on. About three-quarters of the material came from their suggestions."
But when she tried out her draft versions at Hope Lodge, the flaws at once became apparent. Either the songs were too long, or the words came too fast for the Makaton signing that many of the children relied on. And some of the tracks were downright alarming.
"The sound needed to be regular, with no abrupt changes of rhythm or high pitches," says Ms Curry. "If there are sudden jumps in volume with trombones squalling out at you, it can sound as if the music is attacking.
So when the CDs were finally mastered, I had the wave pattern compressed."
Determined to pitch it just right, she became a regular at the Hope Lodge music sessions, sitting in with musical co-ordinator Sandra Simpson and getting to know children and teachers. "One of the hardest things was making age-appropriate music, and that's what everyone I spoke to begged for more than anything else. They said they were sick of singing 'Three Blind Mice' to 17-year-olds, so I tried to mirror the contemporary music that the kids themselves listen to."
The result, says NAS research director Richard Mills, is one of the most thoughtful pieces of work he has come across: a project "which plays to the children's strengths while dealing with the things they might find difficult, such as communication, rhythm and prediction. Some people don't put a lot of thought into this sort of thing, which tends to give musical interventions a bad name and can actually be quite harmful to some kids with sensory problems."
He is particularly pleased that the CD resulted from co-operation with schools, and was "not just something visited on people from aloft".
At Hope Lodge today, it is clear that this process has not come to an end with release of Connections. As they prepare for another session, Sandra Simpson and Jessica Curry are deep in conversation. "There is a desperate shortage of key stage 3 and 4 material," says Ms Simpson. "The mainstream stuff is all too complicated. We need compositions in styles like bhangra and club remixes that are accessible to children with autism. Then there is blues, electronic, reggae, salsa..."
On hearing this musical wish list, Jessica Curry's face lights up and, reaching for a sheet of paper, she begins planning her next project.
For more information about Connections, or to buy the two-CD set with accompanying user guide, visit www.connectionsmusic.co.uk. Contact Jessica Curry on email@example.com. For information on the RSA Onians Fellowship awards, go to www.rsa.org.ukoniansframeset.asp