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Neurologic Music Therapy

Finds Rhythm In Phoenix

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Suzanne Oliver(left), Founder and Executive Director of NMTSA and Beth Eriksen(right), Therapist and Development Coordinator of NMTSA.
Founder Of Neurologic Music Therapy Services Of Arizona Discusses The Development and Burgeoning Acceptance Of The Treatment Used To Help Patients Suffering From Autism, Parkinson’s And More

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By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 7, 2015 — Millions of people suffer from neurological diseases such as autism, Parkinson's or cerebral palsy. Unfortunately, most diseases of the sort can’t be cured, so they need to be treated as best they can. This may involve physical therapy, medication or in some cases music.

A lesser known form of treatment called neurologic music therapy, or NMT, has been in use since the 1960s but only recently has the scientific research truly come in to play to back it up as a legitimate form of treatment for these disorders. Suzanne Oliver, a leader in the field of NMT, has been working to legitimize and further the field since 1982 in Phoenix.

Oliver was a graduate of Arizona State University who decided to make something in her home state rather than leave the state to find a job, which most of her fellow graduates chose to do. According to her, at the time there were only two jobs in the entire state. That’s why she founded Neurologic Music Therapy Services of Arizona (NMTSA).

“During school you saw places that needed therapy but there were no full time jobs, so we needed a model that would allow an hour or here or two hours there,” Oliver said. “At that time it was a crazy idea. The challenges were, I was fresh out of school, I was 22 going on 23 and I didn’t have money, plus educating the community. But at the same time goes the idea of ‘I can do anything.”

Oliver says many of her peers encouraged her to go out and get a “real job” but she had a vision that went beyond her own career aspirations. She wanted to build something that would allow other therapists to be able to work and grow as well. She had wanted to pursue this ever since her sophomore year in high school.

“Sophomore year in high school I took a career test. I’m probably one of the few that it actually worked for, but I took the test and got my number, pulled my card out and it was music therapy. I remember pulling that card and saying, this is what I want to do,” Oliver said.

The NMTSA has grown substantially throughout the years. The office is home to several therapists, a school for children that have difficulties learning in a traditional environment and even special needs private music lessons on occasion.

“I love this atmosphere because I can work with other therapists,” said Beth Eriksen, a therapist and development coordinator at the NMTSA.

Eriksen moved to Arizona from Iowa eight years ago in order to work for Oliver as opposed to trying to find a job in her state. The NMTSA operates as a non-profit which allows for more people to be able to utilize the form of therapy.

“Our goal is to serve everyone in the community, not just those who can pay. We take people in who maybe don’t have sufficient funds to pay for the therapy,” Eriksen said.

The organization raises funds to be able to award scholarships to those who may not be able to afford treatment, but more insurance companies are starting to cover the therapy and according the Oliver they recently became the only facility in the state that is covered by Medicaid.

“Our focus has always been getting people to access service, so while I know that we could have higher rates, we haven’t wanted to price ourselves out of the thing,” Oliver said. “I could leave here and get my own clients and I could make a significant amount more money, but that’s not my vocation and that’s not what I’ve been called to do. It’s not going to mean as much.

Currently, a 50 minute session costs $60.

According to Oliver, recent research has led to a better understanding of how NMT works to treat these disorders which is helping to legitimize the treatment in the eyes of potential skeptics as well as medical professionals.

“Neurologic music therapy specifically, the research that has been done shows that it is effective with neurologic impairments in general. If you have a neurologic impairment, you have a connectivity issue and we know that music in general, rhythm specifically can create neural pathways where none exist and can optimize pathways,” Oliver said.

The music is just a part of the process though. Eriksen incorporates other tools such as scooters, balls and other such objects to help make the connections they are trying to establish stick.

“Your brain process the space between the music, so we can even use that with individuals with Parkinson's or someone who’s had a stroke to relearn to walk, because we can go step, step, step, step (rhythmically) so their brain is processing that rhythm which is helping with that motor function or the speech function,” Eriksen said.

According to Eriksen, NMT can work well in tandem with other forms of therapy, but it also addresses the problem in a completely different way.

“We work very well with speech therapists and physical therapists. We utilize all of those components. We are not those therapists but we understand motor. We understand speech and cognition. We are addressing kind of the root issue. If they can’t attend and raise their hand in school, why? They can’t sit in a chair, why? Because their body isn’t feeling the sensory input around them to be able to sit, so let’s address that,” Eriksen said.

Even with the the new research and data, there still are hurdles that may take some time to cross though, in terms of the general view on music therapy.

“People think music is so accessible. They think ‘I can turn on the radio. I can do this.’ They see it as a leisure thing. We fought that for a long time with the state where they would say ‘why can’t a parent just use a tape player?’ Now that we know the science of it we know the importance of people overseeing that because music can have a positive effect and it can have a negative effect.” Oliver said.

However, even when things are difficult, Oliver reverts back to what got her started down this path in the first place.

“If I’m back here and I’m struggling through something, whether it’s a fundraising thing or trying to get someone support and work, and I’m having a hard time, I just get up and go and walk out there and I see people doing jobs that they love and I look at these people’s lives changing and it’s like ‘I’m exactly where I need to be,” Oliver said.

For more information or to contact the NMTSA, visit their website at http://www.nmtsa.org/.

Ryan Scott is a contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He lives in Mesa.
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