Young Community Volunteer Makes a Difference with Autistic Children through Music by Nithya Tippireddy

Whenever we would go to India, my mom would take us to her friend’s house. That friend, who was affected with a form of muscular dystrophy, could only move her feet. I remember first visiting her 10 years ago when she was a shy and naive seven-year-old. I hid behind my mom, staring mortified at her distorted features.

Concerned about the resistance I showed towards this friend, my mother encouraged me at fourteen to volunteer at FCSN, a special needs center, hoping to increase my exposure to the disabled community. I recall being nervous my first day, completely unsure how to react when engulfed by meandering kids who were flapping their wrists and incoherently asking my name. Asked one day to help a young autistic girl use the restroom, I stifled my initial horror at this request and led her inside, soon realizing that yelling instructions from outside the stall doesn’t work.

Despite initial resistance, I opened up with further visits. As I worked with these children, I noticed their impatient expressions and hurried nods, indicating that they understood me perfectly but just couldn’t respond verbally. I was determined to find a solution to break the communication barriers that afflict the autistic community.

I realized the power of music as a tool of self-expression and communication after helping out with the annual drama play. I witnessed the perfect sense of pitch and rhythm that these students had, and I stood awestruck by how beautifully they joined together, each playing by ear. Their potential inspired me, and I started and taught a music program at FCSN to bring these passionate but often-neglected children comfort, patience, and musical knowledge gained from my ten years of violin playing.

As the lessons progressed, I saw their bodies move to the rhythm–however boisterously or gently–and their previously-screened states surface as their eyes closed with the melody. I finally gave them a voice, redefining language through music. At our first recital, parents were stunned. They saw their children, who had never spoken a single word in their lives, suddenly releasing all their confined emotion through that small, wooden fiddle.

The music program started with just violin instruction, but seeing my progress, others were inspired to join. It has slowly expanded to piano and singing lessons as well. I initially worked with one student, and we’ve now expanded to four instructors and 25 children. I track the music schedule, organize our performances, and regularly discuss our progress through informal emails and monthly meetings.

The musical engagement in these lessons goes far beyond self-expression to greatly enhancing the children’s social skill set, allowing them greater concentration and eye contact. Children sing repetitious songs and simultaneously tap drums with shocking results. After a year of lessons, Kate uttered her first word. And it wasn’t just her. Other students began speaking, and we continued to refine our songs, adding useful phrases and social cues that greatly help their development and coherence.

I see the impact I’ve made on this community. I focused on opportunities for them to express themselves and engage with their world in ways they couldn’t before. Witnessing students transform during violin class or say “mom” for the first time motivates me to further explore the effects of music therapy and the human brain to better the lives of disabled individuals.

During my Freshman Biology, I had discovered my passion: neuroscience. I grasped the concept of neurotransmission. I saw that within microseconds, the human brain could send a signal to each and every cell, tissue, and organ in the body.   

My interest in the brain grew with my volunteer and research experiences. I was exposed to the human aspect of neuroscience as I worked with autistic children, visualizing their symptoms and behaviors. Researching at UC Berkeley this summer, I studied mouse models to investigate how slight neural microdeletions cause autistic symptoms. I observed the genetic mutations under the microscope and recalled the special needs children I work with. A slight shift in their genetic code produces this life-altering disability.

Volunteering at St. Rose Hospital, a safety-net for the low income population, I feel grateful as I use my knowledge and services to aid and comfort patients. As a neurologist, I will further help underserved communities and continue to uncover what makes humans such complex and unique individuals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nithya Tippireddy is a high school student in Silicon Valley.  She wants to be a neurologist to help many underserved communities globally.

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