You can’t fault people for turning away from current events these days, but there are many pockets of light, even if they rarely make headlines or get curated by gloom and doom algorithms. Some optimism has come to us by way of musicians like David Byrne, whose good-news aggregator “Reasons to Be Cheerful” showcases positive developments around the world. Indie rock drummer Thor Harris has encouraged fans with tips on how to stay healthy in trying times, and he has announced a run for governor of Texas. And last fall, Cheap Trick’s bassist Tom Petersson started a project called Rock Your Speech, which “leverages the power of music to build language skills in children who are working to overcome speech delay associated with autism.”
As Petersson and his wife Alison explain above, they were inspired by their experience with their son, Liam, who, “until the age of five,” reports David Chiu at Huffington Post, “had difficulty communicating,” They discovered that music could help when Liam began singing along to one of her favorite Elton John songs. Petersson wanted “to help other parents,” he told HuffPo, “and to let people know they’re not alone.” An L.A. benefit concert harnessed the collective power of celebrities and indie artists to jumpstart the project, with bands like the Dandy Warhols and Red Kross and actors Ed Asner and Billy Bob Thornton participating.
Rock Your Speech is not the only such initiative, but it is probably the most high-profile, and could bring attention to similar efforts like Auditory-Motor Mapping Training, developed by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory. At the Autism Speaks blog, Schlaug writes, “as many as three in ten children with autism are nonverbal. Yet many children with autism have superior auditory skills and a particular attraction to music.” Like Rock Your Speech, his approach uses “forms of music-making that encourage vocalization as a pathway to developing language.” Musician and psychologist Adam Reece has also written about his research showing the positive role music therapy can play in language acquisition for kids on the spectrum.
Petersson’s project puts a rock star face on music therapy and comes “from the point of view of the parent,” he says. Rock Your Speech not only raises autism awareness but also offers original music and videos designed to stimulate and inspire kids. Hear “Blue” from the Rock Your Speech, Volume 1 album above, one of several songs Petersson wrote that “employs actual rock music,” Chiu writes, “not necessarily the gentle, kiddie-type of sounds that are generally prevalent in children’s music.” Videos on the Rock Your Speech site for “Blue” and other songs “not only show the words but also demonstrate to kids how those words are formed and mouthed.”
The project’s Vimeo channel shows the Petersson family involved in Liam’s speech development through music, including his older sister Lilah coaching her brother with a song called “Wash Your Hands.” (See Lilah’s video above for her song “All the Same,” written for Liam.) Liam, now ten, has come a long way. “He’s in school,” says Petersson, “He loves music… He’s definitely on the autism spectrum, but he speaks, he’s social. He’s the sweetest little guy.” His musical family has a lot to do with that, but Rock Your Speech offers even non-musician parents a wealth of catchy tools to help kids struggling with speech to connect with language through rock ‘n’ roll. For many families, that could be very good news indeed.