Jim Donovan used to be a drummer for the band Rusted Root, a Pittsburgh-based group and a fixture in the Central and Western New York music scene. Now, he’s using his percussive skills with a different aim: helping children with autism and the parents and professionals who work with them to communicate better.
Last week, around 130 parents and professionals came together at LeMoyne College in Syracuse for a session on how drum therapy can help people with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, which affects around 3.5 million Americans, is a developmental disorder that typically affects a person’s ability to interact and communicate with others (though each individual’s symptoms are different).
“My goal is to show all people in attendance how to use simple drums to increase attention, reduce stress and anxiety, and help improve socialization,” Donovan explained during his demonstration.
He then led the group, each with West African djembe drums held between their knees and holding brightly colored “Boomwhackers” for drumming. The techniques were developed at Saint Francis University and have been clinically tested.
Donovan also shared an anecdote about a woman who, as part of a study on drumming and autism, brought a drum into the classroom for a boy named Sam. When Sam tapped on the drum, the woman repeated the rhythms he had created — and Sam started engaging with her.
“For the first time ever, Sam got to lead something,” Donovan said.
Michael Dermody, chief operating executive of application security at BNY Mellon, had previously taken a session with Donovan. When he realized how drumming had improved his life — offering opportunities for creativity and reducing stress — he reached out with the hopes of setting up a drum circle training in Syracuse (and went on to co-sponsor the LeMoyne session).
Although the local session is already over, Donovan also offers a multimedia online training via the organization Drum Circle Leadership.