music therapy for autism

Sietta’s Lumina: Global Music Therapy Project, Phase 2: Uganda

Sietta stands in front of of her house and daughters. Bebian is in the same pink skirt worn by her classmates as we prepare to embark upon the hike to Kagarama Primary School after our night with the family.

She comes from a lineage of impeccable posture and stands tall, yet covers her eyes and hides her young face as she reveals her dream of becoming a nurse. I am slow to respond on the exterior, yet my interior races with all the complications involved in such a dream – the educational costs, the logistics of leaving home and boarding at a school far from her family, the question of where she might work even if she brought this beautiful dream to fruition. I acknowledge that although Bebian may be taller, I stand much higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and find her perspective nearly unfathomable. I repress the urge to inundate her with queries and smile at her brave answer.

Her widowed mother goes through the motions of hospitality with grace, but I catch a glimpse of  what looks like heartbreak and frustration. The reflections of firelight dance upon Sietta’s face; shiny with a sweat that is rich with the history of loss brought upon by war and disease.

They have a goat I attempt to pet, but it is clear that their lack of affection for this animal is intentional. I tell them that I miss my goats and actually sold them to come on this trip to Uganda. I realize the irony in my choice to become attached to an animal I would eventually have to sacrifice. They preserve their affection for the spade and dark, overworked earth that provides their family with green beans, yams, bananas and maize.

As we sit in a small room illuminated by a puny flashlight hanging from the earthen wall, Sietta shares a fragment of her story. Then she asks us why we are here. The unarticulated answer still swirls within my soul as I struggle to compose a sentence that makes sense in either of our cultures. 

The only explanation I can confidently provide is music. The only gift I can provide that doesn’t feel tied to an agenda thick with corruption or haughty greed is music. I can study the music of their culture and bring in my understanding of a human’s physiologic response to the rhythm, timbre, and harmonic structure of a song. I can combine the evidence provided by advanced technology and intertwine it with this ancient practice and say, “Sing! The wisdom of your ancestors is finally being proven by an fMRI or EEG. Sing and clap and dance as I acknowledge the ways in which you are enhancing neural activity both individually and collectively. Sing proudly and trust that I know you sing not with reckless abandon, but with great intention and unwavering purpose.”

Sietta and her older daughter escort us up the steep trail in the morning. When we get to the main road and it is time to bid this woman farewell, I feel the urge to kneel before her, reach into my ribcage and present my heart  for some sort of blessing. Just one night in her presence has taught me so much and I struggle to express my gratitude appropriately. I take her hands in mine and whisper, “Webale.”


Some of the children we met at the house: Atusasibwe Dorothy, Orishaba Annette, Gumoshabe Jordan, Niwandinda Praise, Akatwijuka Rita, Nisiima Elizabeth, Niwamanya Loyce, Tukwasibwe Yoram, & Nahwera Nancy.

Thank you to our translator, Joshua, and our Police escort, Julius.

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Angie Kopshy, MM, MT-BC
Angie Kopshy, MM, MT-BC

Music Therapy Services of Portland is directed by board-certified music therapist, Angie Kopshy. Upon completion of her Master’s in Music from Boise State University, Angie returned to Portland to study music therapy at Marylhurst University. Music Therapy Services of Portland specializes on working with children on the autism spectrum. Angie is also a singer/songwriter with the band, Stoneface Honey.

Angie has been working closely with Mike Ricucci of Terra Rising Films. Terra Rising is currently traveling the world, in-production for a feature length documentary exploring the science and cultural impact of music as seen through music therapy.