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Classical 101

Classical 101 presents an Immersive experience for children with autism

A musician plays a guitar onstage in WOSU's Ross Community Studio, and a photograph of a bucket of crayons on a table.
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IMMERSE brings music and art activities for children with autism.

This month children with autism will have a new immersive opportunity to engage with music and art at WOSU’s headquarters.

WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, the Ohio State University School of Music and the Ohio State University Nisonger Center present IMMERSE, a sensory-friendly music, movement and art experience designed for children 6-12 years old with autism and sensory processing concerns.

Two hour-long sessions will take place Saturday, April 22 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. in WOSU’s Ross Community Studio. Each session will include a short concert and hands-on music, movement and drawing activities. Classical 101 morning host Christopher Purdy will emcee the programs. Registration for each session is open to 15 children and their parent(s).

IMMERSE was born of the desire to engage the community through music in the intimate space of the Ross Community Studio at WOSU’s state-of-the-art headquarters.

“Classical 101 and our collaborators have been able to create a musical experience tailored to the particular needs of autistic children,” said Cheryl Dring, program director of Classical 101. “We’re excited that this program will enable us to engage with families in our community in a very real way.”

logo for Classical 101's IMMERSE - aqua circle with "IMMERSE" written inside and a water wave design, on a white background
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Through musical performances and opportunities to move, play instruments, draw and color, students can experience creative activities in the type of immersive experience often offered to neurotypical learners.

“There’ve been several individual accounts in the literature that talk about how children with autism respond positively to music. I found this project particularly exciting because it was just removing barriers to participation,” said Paula Rabidoux, associate director of Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center, devoted to research, education and training, and clinical services for those with developmental disabilities.

The musical program for IMMERSE was designed to honor a wide range of sensory sensitivities and to pique students’ curiosity and imaginations.

“Some students might have sensitivities to loud sounds and certain timbres, to multiple voices in a room, to the compounding factors of voice, light, people, instruments. Having worked with students in the past with autism or sensory sensitivities, we knew we wanted to limit the number of students in the space. We knew we needed to have repertoire that wouldn’t be overpowering. We knew we needed something completely different that would really draw people’s ears and eyes toward the stage and toward the performer,” said David Hedgecoth, associate professor of music education at the Ohio State University School of Music.

Hedgecoth recruited a flutist, a clarinetist, a cellist and two percussionists – all doctoral students in music at Ohio State – to perform short, tuneful musical works. To avoid overstimulation and add some visual interest, the two percussionists will perform with found objects on the body of an acoustic guitar. The resulting sound is less heavy than typical drum sounds.

“The timbres of those instruments and the ability for those instruments to have different volume and articulation, we decided, would be a more inviting environment for students,” Hedgecoth said.

The performers will also talk about their musical instruments and tell the stories behind the musical works. During the concert, attendees will be able to choose whether to enjoy the music while sitting on a plush rug near the stage, in theater-style seating or at tables with their parents. They’ll also have the option to cuddle a stuffed animal or take a break in the quiet area next to the performance space.

After the performance, children can participate in hands-on music and art activities. At one station, they’ll have a chance to move to some of the beautiful melodies they heard in the concert. At another station, they can join in some rhythmic call-and-response led by the percussionists. A station with paper, crayons and coloring sheets will be ready for those who want to make some art. Graduate students at OSU’s School of Music and Nisonger Center will facilitate at each station.

“We know that individuals with autism oftentimes learn in different ways from neurotypical children,” Rabidoux said. “For those who need to be moving constantly in order to be engaged and learning more, we’ll have that as an option. And for those who need to be touching and hearing the instruments, we’ll have that as an option.”

This month’s IMMERSE concerts are serving as pilot events, to gauge interest among the community and to see which activities attendees find most engaging. But the program’s collaborators are hopeful that the performances will continue and enrich the lives of young audiences well into the future.

"We've conceived the program so we can offer it at WOSU and in other venues," said Classical 101's Cheryl Dring. "It's something we would like to see ongoing."

IMMERSE takes place Saturday, April 22 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the Ross Community Studio at the WOSU headquarters, 1800 N. Pearl St. Columbus, OH 43201. Advance registration is required. Major funding for IMMERSE is provided by Norma Hedgecoth.

Classical 101 arts and autism
Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.