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Music is the Universal Language

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
02/23/23  10:02 AM PST

Here’s Why Music is the Universal Language

This past autumn in that magical window of time before the weather requires multiple layers but after the leaves start to change, our family attended a festival to raise money to clean up the river that winds its way through our small town. The “Riverfest” was less than a mile from our house and included not one, not two, but five bouncy houses as well as lawn games, inflatable horses for racing, and free food and drinks. The golden sun was just setting behind the burnished trees and we chased its trail across the wide expanse of lawn from one activity to the other.

My seven-year-old twins were blissed out by everything, which I knew they would be. Give them bouncy houses and unlimited hot dogs and call it a day. I worried, however, about my older son Charlie who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He couldn’t bounce with the rest of them. But here’s why the “Riverfest” will go down in our family history: it had a full stage and live band that did not take breaks and knew its crowd. There was bluegrass and 90s rock and classic Americana followed by a little easy listening as the night grew late. Firelight from the bonfires flickered while kids ran barefoot through the grass, hands sticky from s’mores. Through it all, the music played on and Charlie was enraptured.

For all of his ten years, Charlie has conducted a high-intensity love affair with music. From that very first Baby Einstein musical keychain to all the LeapFrog toys that came after, he has longed for and needed that specific stimulus. When they asked on his preschool intake form what the easiest ways to sooth him was, I wrote “music”. It doesn’t even matter if it’s good music. I have sung every variation of “Baby Shark” and the Blippi theme song and it never ceases to make him smile. It does not matter that he is mostly nonverbal, because music has a universal language all its own that does not require a specific nationality, dialect, or skill set to understand. We can all bob our heads to Van Morrison and get along just fine.

There are a plethora of studies that prove music therapy, specifically playing an instrument, can help kids with autism develop social and self-soothing skills. But I would add that children like mine, who do not have dexterity to pick up an instrument, can also find a powerful outlet in music.

For Charlie, it offers a deeply-needed social connection. Music class is his favorite. And when the third grade performs holiday concerts, Charlie is front and center grinning with his peers and doing his best head-bobbing, shoulder-shimmying wheelchair dance. Once that first verse rings out over the loudspeaker, or that guitarist at the front of the stage thrums a chord, Charlie is in it until the finish. The joy is unmistakable and infectious. His friends love to play music with him for that very reason. And it’s why our family watches “School of Rock” and every Disney musical on repeat.

Music is also a form of communication for nonverbal kids like Charlie. When I was fifteen, I had the rare opportunity to take a literary tour of Europe with a college in a nearby state. I was the youngest one there. There was one other boy close to my age and we quickly stuck together to stay afloat in the sea of “Dawson’s Creek” lookalikes whom we found ourselves with for two weeks. I have a vivid memory of a rainy evening walk along the busy streets of London while this boy hummed Don McLean’s “American Pie”. We were young and missing home. We didn’t have to say a word. The music spoke for us. This is true for Charlie too. He often tells me how he’s feeling through specific songs – Sting’s “Fields of Gold” for sadness, anything Christmas for joy, and all the percussion for when he’s especially peppy.

Lastly, the physical movement music inspires in him cannot be underestimated. He’s in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean he can’t dance. I once wrote a piece for Scary Mommy that followed the Ballet for All Kids studio in Los Angeles. This ballet provides therapy for kids of all abilities to come and dance to the music. Kids in wheelchairs. Kids with braces. Kids with hearing and seeing impairments. Everyone is welcome. Everyone can dance.

Music provides a release of emotion. It offers freedom for the body and the mind to wander. It is social connection and communication on a level that goes beyond words. It stimulates us both physically and emotionally. It’s only logical that it would be the perfect universal language in which we, of all abilities, find connection with each other.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.
Author of the middle-grade novels:


















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