The music therapy program at the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn provides autistic children a creative outlet that helps them interact with others.

Seated on his mother’s knee, 4-year-old Daniel Johnson stretches out a hand to strum the strings of an acoustic guitar, smiling widely at the staccato chords created by his fingertips.

Johnson, of New Castle, is autistic and a student in the music therapy classes at the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn, classes his mother, Marsha, says are extremely valuable to her quiet, introverted son.

“With music, you see a different side of him,” she said. “His eyes light up.”

Many of the children in CCArts’ two music therapy classes are autistic and the music acts a means to stimulate them and help them interact with other children, said music therapist Evangeline Williams.

The classes are so important that parents have continued to enroll their children despite the fact that CCArts had to begin charging admission for the classes this year, said Sharon Gabor, program director. Attendance has been down since CCArts lost the grant that fully funded the program, she said, but the center is committed to music therapy.

In the younger class, for children aged 3 to 12, Williams plays the guitar, sings songs and uses props, like a puppy hand puppet, to help the kids verbalize animals, colors and numbers.

Seated in a semicircle with their parents or grandparents, the kids shook bells in time to music and tapped drum skins with rainbow colored mallets.

Daniel looked down at his navy blue drum skin wide-eyed, bouncing on his mother’s knee as she helped him swing the mallet. His smile broadened with each percussive thump.

It’s often difficult for Daniel to communicate, Marsha said, but all his frustration melts away when music comes on.

Music Therapy at CCArts

410 Upper Snuff Mill Row, Yorklyn (302) 239-2434

9 Thursdays from April 2 - May 28

Ages 3 - 12 at 6 p.m.

Ages 13 - 21 at 7 p.m.

$75/members, $100/nonmembers

Drop in rate to attend one class:

$10/members, $15/nonmembers

Playing music, especially drums, is a way for autistic children to let out some of their frustration, Williams said, and music also acts as a means for them to communicate with other kids.

In the older class, for children aged 13 to 21, the students worked together, singing along to Carol King and Britney Spears CDs, clapping to music and hopping out of their chairs to dance the hokey pokey in the middle of the sunlit classroom.

While the class only had three students, that’s the perfect size for a special needs kid who may be overwhelmed by crowded rooms and larger settings, said Jean Sarno, of Kennett Square, Pa.

Her son James is autistic and has Down syndrome, but he loves coming to class, hearing the music and being around the other kids. When he started at CCArts, he wouldn’t even walk in the door, Sarno said, but now he enthusiastically dances with everyone else.

It’s extremely rewarding to watch her son interact, she said, because he can get very frustrated when he tries to communicate and people don’t understand. As parents of an autistic child, Jean said she and her husband Ed have learned to interpret their son’s body language and patiently understand what he’s trying to say.

“We’ve become really good at being fortune tellers,” she said. “Patience is a virtue, but it’s a learned virtue.”

Communication is also a challenge for Susan Chung’s 21-year-old autistic daughter, Melissa, but she loves to sing along with the stereo, even if she doesn’t understand all the lyrics, Chung said.

Her daughter has an eclectic taste in music and her CD collection ranges from Cher to Cheryl Crow to Disney soundtracks, said Chung, of Corner Ketch. Autistic kids like Melissa typically miss out on band class or music lessons at school, Chung said, so the music therapy classes at CCArts provide a valuable creative outlet for her daughter.

“This is really a hidden gem in Hockessin,” she said.

In the classroom, Melissa held a microphone tightly and belted out the lyrics to “A Very Merry Un-birthday” from Alice in Wonderland.

As the lesson ended, the kids each took a turn strumming Williams’ guitar then shook hands with each other and filed out of the classroom.

Grinning, James approached his parents, ready to head home after an hour of singing and dancing. Seeing her son smile makes it all worthwhile, said Jean.

“We live for this,” she said.

Scroll down to watch a video of a music therapy class at CCArts.