App helps teach autistic students
RICHMOND, Va. — Five boys sit in a small circle in an English classroom. They sway back and forth as their fingers touch the iPad screens in front of them. Their faces light up as they touch the screens, seeing — and hearing — their previous week’s creation.
All five boys have autism, as about one in 68 children nationally does, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their enthusiasm brings a chorus of different sounds to the small classroom, with loops of one student-created sound overplaying another.
This is a new way for the middle school-age students to learn the basics of music. They’re using an app created by local tech startup Light the Music, whose co-founder Steve Van Dam, a former rock star, serves as the teacher.
“I get to take apart all of those building blocks and put them together like Legos on the app and figure out creative ways to teach music,” Van Dam said. “It’s about more than music, though. Music helps these kids in other ways.”
Van Dam has no formal teaching experience — he studied music theory and composition at James Madison University — but runs the class like a teaching veteran. A student begins to overlap different sounds on his iPad, and Van Dam stops him dead in his tracks.
“What did you just create?” he asks the student.
“A rhythm,” the student correctly responds. Progress.
With the app, students create sounds with visuals to accompany them. As they press the screens of the iPads, the sound emerges. They can loop sounds, mix in different sounds and ultimately create music.
Van Dam and the other co-founder, Craig Honeycutt, created the ORO Visual Music app to help students design and build their own sounds, helping them learn the fundamentals of music theory as a result. The two started Light the Music in 2012, 10 years after they were out on tour.
Van Dam and Honeycutt were members of the band Everything, an alternative rock band best known for its hit song, “Hooch,” which Van Dam co-wrote and saw climb its way up to No. 69 on the U.S. Hot 100 music list. It was featured in the movie “The Waterboy” starring Adam Sandler. Van Dam played multiple instruments, including guitar and clarinet, for the band, while Honeycutt played guitar and served as the lead vocalist for the group, which is currently on hiatus.
Now, their attention is in the classroom. Van Dam goes into schools once a week to relay the knowledge accumulated from international tours to teach autistic students the basics of music theory: pitch, rhythm and melody, for example. At The Faison School, Van Dam has two 30-minute sessions every Monday.
“Individuals with autism, one of the components of that disorder, have limited or restricted interest, so for our students ... it’s hard to expand their interest, but we saw success when we got involved with this,” said Kathy Matthews, the vice president of educational outreach at The Faison Center. “The thought of expanding their knowledge and interest of music and that maybe they’d leave here with this awareness that they didn’t have before was obviously very appealing to us.”
Nearly 20,000 students in Virginia are being served under the category of autism in commonwealth schools, according to the Virginia Department of Education. That number is up from about 1,500 in 1998.
Across the U.S., about 1.5 percent of children have autism spectrum disorder. Helping build foundational music knowledge assists this growing population, Van Dam said.
“It’s expressive. You can say something about how you feel,” he said. “It’s giving kids the opportunity to explore what they want to say.”