4 Ways to Bring Music and Singing to Those with Special Needs

Close up portrait of handicapped boy holding microphone outdoors

If you really want a rich artistic life, do your music with a neuro-diverse group –says Jaime Babbitt.

We are all aware of the healing and restorative powers of music. I have gone on and on about singing for seniors and how wonderful it is, for them AND the singers.

I recently became the assistant theater director for a nonprofit organization called BACKLIGHT PRODUCTIONS in Franklin, TN. Their mission is to bring theatre, dance and music to adults with special needs.

I love working with these individuals, and seeing how creative arts helps them make sense of ideas and concepts in the world.

In case you’d like to work with a neuro-diverse population, here are some things to keep in mind:

Everything is better with a little rhythm

Trying to get ideas across can sometimes feel challenging when you’re working with people who don’t think the way you do.  With that in mind, try putting your ideas to rhythm.

There’s something about a beat that internally organizes things; I’ve watched it happen. So, when we’re learning a song – either a cappella or along with a track -I always encourage hand-clapping and foot-stomping.

Even if it’s off the beat, a collective hive mind kicks in, and while everyone doesn’t suddenly whip into shape like a marching band, their rhythms aren’t as wildly disparate as you would think.

This activity not only encourages coordination, it instills confidence when folks feel like they “get” it. And that is what this is all about.

Everything is even better with a little dancing

Yes, you heard me, dancing. There’s nothing like watching a roomful of neuro-diverse people singing “Jingle Bells” and doing the Hokey Pokey.

When I’m teaching concepts like accents from around the world or running lines, putting movement with words and lyrics lets everything sink in just a little deeper.

I also encourage people to do interpretive dancing. I was surprised at how well my neuro-diverse students took to interpretive dance. I think it allows their imaginations to spark; they can see themselves in their favorite Disney movie, or just laugh and be silly.

Once again for the people at the back

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: this can be key for people whose cognitive functions are different than ours.

Please understand that it’s important to always be respectful and even-keel; it’s NEVER okay to be condescending, patronizing or frustrated.  Working with adults with special needs means you’ve chosen to learn to be more patient. It is a noble endeavor and one that will serve you well. See, we teach AND learn!

So, repeat lyrics and lines as many times as necessary in a calm, clear way. I also always add a lot of funny. Funny is good. The goofier, the better.

I don’t know how many times during their days that my students encounter impatient people who roll their eyes, or speak to them loudly and sloooowly, as though they were children. My job is to make sure that never happens on my watch.

Free to be you and free to be me

When you’re performing in music/theater, often you’re being someone else. But guess what? That someone else is still you. So, the same way that music and theater transforms others when they see and hear it, it transforms the performer, too.

I love to see my students sing a happy song and react with a big, “Wow! That felt soooo good!” We’ll play popular songs that evoke certain emotions and ask everyone to dance in a way that the song makes them feel.

I watched a student who recently had a loss in the family start to cry as he moved along to what would be considered a “sad” song.  When the other students saw him get upset, at first, they let him move and cry on his own. Slowly, several started to approach and hug him. Pretty soon, they were all in a big group hug. Swaying, all the while protecting him in the center.

If you’re so inclined to do this kind of work, I hope you find a way. It’s really hard to articulate just how profoundly touching and important this work is.

This is music as a service and healing profession. So, continue to sing in your cover band, or your singer-songwriter duo. Throw a little of this in to compose a beautiful, rich, musical/artistic life!


  • Abby Burke DDiv

    Bravo and Brava! I live in Davidson county and would be very interested in working with this mission! I have first hand knowledge of the learning process of these exceptional adults. My sister is one of a kind! Again, I appreciate your wanting to enlarge this populations artistic territory! Bravo! Dr. Abby Burke, Artist Revival Ministries, Inc. ❤

  • Abby–thank you! It is an amazing group, for sure! We’re off for the summer but let’s see what can happen in the fall!

  • Greg Allen Morgoglione

    Please visit Accessible Music Project at http://www.AMP211.org. For 22 years I have been committed to making contemporary music accessible to those whose access is limited. 🍻