Since our first clinical study in 1994, we have focused on how to reduce anxiety and induce calm. For ten years our research examined children and adults on the autism spectrum. This population proved to be an excellent anxiety-based arena for two reasons:
1. People with autism often have a lot of anxiety. And anxiety can rule much of their behavior. A child may tantrum when asked to enter a noisy, stimulating environment like a restaurant or shopping mall (or school lunchroom) or an adult may react aggressively when sharing mealtime with others.
Observing anxiety in people with autism is easy and noticing changes, however small, becomes simple. The cessation of crying in a tantruming child or halting of aggressive behavior in an over-stimulated adult is an obvious measure of a reduction in anxiety.
2. Because autism is characterized by an inability to socially engage in an appropriate manner or an inability to communicate wants or needs, many people with autism have little to no awareness that some music (or other intervention) is going to be calming. And if they have such awareness, many have no idea how to self-regulate to calm on command.
This effectively removes the placebo effect. And because we are not using self-observed changes in anxiety, but instead use behavioral measures, we further remove any effects of the participants’ expectation from the studies. Either a tantrum stopped or it didn’t.
Our First Study Showed Significant Anxiety Reduction
Our first study was conducted in a public school setting with children between 6 and 12 years old. In this study we tracked immediate anxiety reducing effects as well as long term changes in anxiety levels. In other words, we wanted to see if listening to REI Rhythms would reduce anxiety as it happened (ending a tantrum, for example) and whether any residual calming effect would result in changes of overall behavior.
Immediate calming effects were significant. Nearly all the participants were calmed most of the time. The average frequency of time calmed by the recordings was 86.4%.
As far as overall changes in anxiety levels, we also saw significant changes as an average based on the pre and post tests. In the pre-test, average anxiety was listed at 82 on a 100 point scale. Anxiety on average after the study was reduced to 38 on a 100 point scale. This represents a significant reduction in anxiety over this 8-week period when the REI Rhythms were played quietly in the background. (1)
Subsequent Studies Support These Results
Follow-up studies with autism as well as other conditions such as Anxiety Disorders, Attention Deificit Disorders, and Sleep Disorders, showed similar reductions in anxiety while listening to REI music.
For example, a study conducted in a residential facility for adults with severe autism showed significant changes in anxiety levels both facility-wide and in individual behavior.
One resident was extremely aggressive before the study began, often injuring other residents or the staff. Before the study, incidents were reported several times per week. Within two weeks of beginning using the REI recording, his agggressive outbursts virtually stopped. And they remained rare for the entire study period and extended follow-up of 6 months. (2)
In another recent study, children within a public school showed significant reduction in anxiety-based behaviors while listening to REI rhythms. This study followed 10 students and showed reductions in behaviors in the following areas:
• Emotional outbursts
• Generalized anxiety
• Self-stimulatory behaviors
• Aggressive behavior
• Sound sensitivity
As the study states: Anxiety reduction can take many forms, especially with the large variation of symptomatic behaviors and characteristics present in children on the autism spectrum. (3)
Rhythmic Entrainment Intervention (REI) Customizes Your Calm
Everyone’s stress and anxiety are different. Some people struggle with the stress of the day while others experience deep-seated anxiety. Because of this we offer several solutions for your calm needs. These include:
Calming Rhythms CD. This CD provides episodic calm. Just turn it on when you need calm; your brain will respond in a few minutes.
Brain Shift Radio. BSR is our personalized streaming music site. Here, you will find episodic relief for your anxiety. Plus, you can mix and match your music to play across the 7 categories of calm, focus, brain boost, uplift, energy, meditation, and sleep.
REI Custom Calm Program. This program is created just for you and will provide long-term improvement in your anxiety and anxiety-based behaviors. 6 custom-made REI tracks are delivered over 6 weeks; we will get to the root of your anxiety.
REI Custom Program. This is our premier, all-inclusive program for long-term improvement. We will make improvements in any combination of 10 symptoms areas you may struggle with, including anxiety. Over the course of 12 custom-created REI tracks, we can address anxiety, attention, cognition, impulsivity, mood, language and communication, social skills, sensory processing, sleep, and self-stimulatory behaviors.
I could hear the screaming as we pulled into the driveway. I looked with concern at Lloyd, who simply raised an eyebrow.
Knowing they were expecting us, Lloyd and I walked right into the house and were immediately confronted by Ty who was running through the entryway screaming and flailing his arms.
His mother was following behind, trying to catch him.
Lloyd motioned for me to set down the drum and grab a chair for him as he took stock of the situation. Then he sat down behind the drum and began playing.
He started with a loud slap to the head. The drum’s shout filled the huge room and reverberated off the hard surfaces, drowning out Ty’s screams. Lloyd paused then gave the drum another hard slap.
Ty turned to look, but continued screaming, hitting and pushing his mother away as she caught up to him and tried giving him a hug.
Lloyd tapped the head with the tips of his fingers, laying down a soft patter that was barely audible in the midst of the chaos in the room.
Once out of his mother’s arms, Ty made another lap around the room then came running toward Lloyd and grabbed at the drum. Lloyd was unfazed and kept playing, holding the drum between his legs as six-year-old Ty pawed at it.
Ty’s mother took advantage of Ty’s focus on Lloyd and the drum and was able to get a hold of him. Ty squirmed, but didn’t put up much of a fight as Lloyd raised his volume and began playing in earnest.
I was still stunned by the difference in Ty’s behavior from the last couple of sessions with him. This was our third meeting with Ty; and although Lloyd had told me before we met Ty that he was prone to aggressive outbursts, I hadn’t seen one yet. The Ty that I had observed up until that point was a quiet boy who was intent on occupying his own world, generally oblivious to everything around him. The screaming, running, and lashing out where new to me.
These behaviors, however, were something that I became intimately familiar with in the following decades.
I thought of Ty’s screaming and physical aggression as I entered the yard of the residential facility where I was getting ready to conduct a study. Located in a rural area not far from where I was living in Arizona, this home for adults with autism had been profiled in a newspaper article. I called the home, hoping to be able to play for the residents. Only a year before, I had seen the remarkable calming effects of one of my tapes when it was tested at an adult vocational center. (I talk about that research project in Chapter 9). I was told that this facility was having troubles with its residents’ anxiety and aggressive behavior; I hoped to make customized recordings for each resident to see if my drumming could help.
Once through the entry gate, I saw a man coming toward me. He started yelling obscenities as I approached, his pace toward me quicker than my pace toward the administrative office. I started to say hello and ask him where the director was, but he simply continued on in great detail about how he was going to hurt me—punch me in the face, kick me in the groin, elbow me in the chest—if I crossed him.
This was Charlie, one of the residents and one of the reasons I was at this facility.
His threats were directed to me at a high volume and without making eye contact. By my observation and experience with other men with autism, I didn’t feel that he really intended to act on his threats. He had the characteristic monotone, lack of eye contact, and overall flat affect that characterizes many with this condition. He also lacked the usual intensity and in-your-face aggressiveness that typically precedes such an attack.
Nonetheless, given his history of unprovoked aggression, I was careful not to get too close or to upset him if I could avoid it. I did, however, sit down on the bench near the garden and pick up my drum, which he regarded curiously, and begin to play, which prompted him to watch me even more closely. I was pretty confident that he had never encountered anyone entering his space and drumming. The novelty of this situation seemed to disarm him, because he stopped talking and watched me.
I began by quietly playing calming-type rhythms at the characteristic REI eight-beats-per-second pace. Over the next few minutes, I slowly built up the volume of my drumming and before long he sat down next to me. A few minutes later he put his hand on the shell of the drum.
After approximately four minutes, I began a series of more intense rhythms to see if his behavior would change. This is what Lloyd used to do to invoke a response in a listener and to gauge their level of engagement in the rhythms. Within less than 30 seconds, Charlie grabbed the hardware lugs that tension the drum and tried to pull the drum from my lap. Because I have become accustomed to anticipate a reaction of this sort (I’d lost hold of the drum many times before), I pulled back and just barely managed to hang on.
After a short struggle, he let go of the drum and leaned away from it, though he stayed on the bench. Using the calming-type rhythms I started with, I began playing again. He settled back on the bench. I continued playing for another ten minutes or so, careful to not play rhythms that were too intense or chaotic. He noticeably calmed during this time and was sitting still, gazing off in the distance as I stopped playing and walked away.
Charlie’s response was not unlike Ty’s when Lloyd finally got into a groove. With his mother’s arms around him, Ty stood holding the drum as Lloyd played. I stood in awe as Ty was drawn into the pulse and power of Lloyd’s drumming. Lloyd played for almost ten minutes and all the while Ty stood and held the drum. Ty was calm and allowed his mother to hold him by the time Lloyd stopped playing, so we decided to call it a session and leave.
When we got to the car, I asked Lloyd what he did to calm Ty down.
“I hit the drum with intensity to get his attention. The first slap didn’t do anything. So I played another,” he described.
“That’s when Ty looked at you,” I said.
“Yes, but he was still out of control. I needed to do the unexpected, so I played exactly the opposite way next. Instead of yelling, I whispered.”
“I could barely hear what you were playing. What rhythms were you using?”
“Nothing special. The whisper was the important thing. He needed to search for the sound.”
“And he did. He came right over to you. It was amazing.”
“He was still out of control, though.”
“Yeah, I noticed you switched rhythms or something. The sound was so, I don’t know, pleading.”
“I was talking to him. Asking him to join me. To surrender his violence.”
“Then he just stood there. His mom held him and he didn’t move. Why did that happen, and so fast?”
“He surrendered,” was all Lloyd said. I got nothing more out of him.
These experiences with my teacher and mentor Lloyd were exciting, and maddening. I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was talking about at the time. I was only 20, after all, and my life experience was limited. But somehow I learned enough to use as the foundation to grow on my own over the years.
The drum was a curiosity and the soothing patter drew listeners in, shifting their awareness from the anxiety and aggression they were displaying while allowing their brain to entrain to the rhythms and into a calmer state (I talked about entrainment in Chapter 5 and about calm in Chapter 9). In both Ty’s and Charlie’s cases, calm occurred within a few minutes.
James was diagnosed with ASD (specifically, PDD NOS) with complicating diagnoses of verbal apraxia and sensory processing disorder. His most significant issues were:
Anxiety. Generalized anxiety as well as fear of changes in routine and unfamiliar places.
Self-stimmulatory behaviors such as vocal noise-making, pinching, hand-flapping.
Poor social engagement.
Apraxia and lack of verbal communication.
James began listening to his custom REI recording in the evening while he engaged in quiet play. He was initially resistant to listening (sometimes he would say “no music!”) when the music was turned on. This resistance lasted less than two weeks while, during this time, he made significants gains.
During the first two weeks, James began sleeping through the night, something that he had not been able to do for the previous few years. His anxiety also reduced profoundly, most notably he stopped compulsively asking about the the day’s schedule and worrying about his next activities.
During the third week, his mom related, “For the first time James started asking the ABA therapists to keep playing when the session was done. He also, on his own volition, chose to start playing with his trains and Rescue Heroes. Usually he only wants to draw all day.”
After four weeks on the REI Custom Program, his mom and therapists noted that James’s vocabulary was increasing, as was the length of his sentences.
After 6 weeks James was reported to show the first signs of pretend play. His mother wrote, ”The other day he said ‘elephant’ and used his arm as a trunk and stomped around the room! Also did a similar thing with ‘giant.’ Very exciting!”
At eight weeks, James’s mom reported more behavioral gains. He was doing less drawing and the drawings that he did create were of broader subjects. She noted that he was able, with prompts, to sit through his brother’s baseball game, a first. While the family was out sightseeing they got caught in the pouring rain. “James did not like it, but was okay”. To his family’s surprise he did not have the customary meltdown.
After 16 weeks of listening to his REI recordings, his mother requested a revision to his program that focused more on his issues with inflexibility and difficulty with transition. He started listening to the revised CD in mid October.
After 20 weeks, it was noted that James was continuing to make behavioral gains. His brother was having a bar mitzvah and the whole family was worried about how James would tolerate the very stimulating day. He handled the day surprisingly well, his mother reported, sitting through the entire religious ceremony and staying calm among all the guests. Most surprisingly, James allowed himself to be photographed. Until that day James would get very agitated when a camera was pointed at him and always refused to stand for a photograph. On this day, not only would he allow many photos to be taken, but even smiled on command!
Over the next month, his mother reported that James was using more spontaneous language and appeared “more connected” with his feelings. For instance, she related that when his teacher asked him what was wrong, James replied, “I feel angy”. When asked why he was upset when he had to go to a mainstream class that he did not like (because the sound of the classroom music hurt his ears,) he replied “because there was music.” On another occasion, he told his mother that he felt “nervous” when his school bus took another route home one day.
Fifteen months after completing the REI Custom Program, in an interview with his mother, James was reported to be doing well, with continued growth in his ability to verbally communicate his needs and to socialize more appropriately. He has maintained all of the gains he made while on the REI Custom program, including decreased anxiety, especially about his schedule, increased spontaneous play, and use of verbal communication to express his feelings.
I’ve been honored to work with Sounds True over the last 10 years – one of my favorite publishers – where I created 8 CDs and 2 audio programs. That honor continues as I talk about drum healing and REI with founder Tami Simon on her podcast, Insights at the Edge.
From Sounds True:
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Sounds True founder Tami Simon speaks with Jeff about the concept of brain entrainment through rhythm and how it has deep roots in tribal ceremony. They talk about the therapeutic application of this music for anxiety, ADHD, autism, and mood disorders, and explain the difference between rhythmic entrainment and “neuro beat” recordings. Finally, Jeff offers two excerpts of his music for calming and the exploration of deep meditative states.