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Ex-football player works with neuropsychologist to help change lives of autistic children

Radical speech therapy gives high-functioning clients a voice

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013, 4:27 AM

 


Former professional football player Larry Harris worked with neurophysiologist Michelle Dunn to create a radical speech therapy that’s giving the high-functioning autistic children they work with better futures.

 

A professional football player, opera singer, and a pediatric neuropsychologist meet in a church choir and possibly change the future for autistic children.

Larry Harris and Michelle Dunn actually pooled their talents to create a radical and apparently very effective speech therapy that’s giving the high functioning autistic children they work with better futures.

“You always have to think out of the box,” said Dunn, a Ph.D.’ed pediatric neuropsychologist and neurophysiologist who is also director of Montefiore Medical Center’s Montefiore Autism Center. “If one thing is not working, you have to be flexible and think in a creative way and try new things.

“Larry is a very creative guy,” she said. “He’s been through all these careers and see things from lots of different perspectives. He was willing to see things from outside the box, too, and it seems to be working.”

The duo created a program that taught six high-functioning kids on the autism spectrum the singing and breathing techniques professional singers use to control and modulate their voices.

The system they developed “involves the systematic, kinetic procedures that singers have to deal with on a daily basis,” Harris said. “It involves the disciplines I was familiar with from football along with my familiarity with human anatomy.”

Harris followed his stint with the Houston Oilers with a second career as a celebrated baritone who has sung roles from La Traviata to Aida in venues all over the world.

He and Dunn started their collaboration two years ago after meeting while both were singing in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church choir in Scarsdale.

Dunn has worked with autistic children for more than 30 years. She created a program, Social Skills In Our Schools, with which teachers can help autistic students improve their social skills.

“Having social skills is a big predictor of outcomes for kids on the spectrum,” Dunn said. “Schools typically do not deal with that at all.”

Several high school senior clients Dunn had worked with for years were headed to college in the fall. “They can get through college, but when they come out, in order to be taken seriously in an interview you have to have a kind of okay sounding voice,” Dunn said. “If the voice is too unusual, they’re kind of dismissed out of hand before the interview even starts.”

Dunn asked Harris about any techniques he might use that could help autistic children modulate their voices and speak more slowly.

“We’re talking about voice and the use of the voice to communicate,” Dunn said. “Prosody (rhythm, stress and intonation of speech) deficits have been observed in these kids for some time, and there have been no effective interventions developed by speech language pathologists or neuropsychologists. ”

Harris has taught singing and coached other singers. He showed six of Dunn’s longtime patients, among other things, how to stand correctly, to breathe and speak from their diaphragm and the various parts of their throats and mouths — he’s even taken photographs of the students’ mouths so they can see the anatomical parts and understand how they work.

Harris also taught them how to recognize a physical cque in their breathing that would signal them to pause during whatever they were talking about for a split second.

A longtime researcher, Dunn said the small number of students they have worked with and the fact that they have only been using the technique since May 2012 means data on its effectiveness has yet to be developed.

But when the two attended the Southeastern Autism Conference in Duluth, Ga., in February and played before and after recordings of their students speaking, “it was amazing to watch the audience’s faces as they listened to the differences in the voices,” Dunn said.

Dunn and Harris are working on a manual of the technique which they hope to publish next year.

For more information, go to www.montekids.org/services/leadership/neurology/autism/ or call (914-375-4880) or write the Montefiore Autism Center, 6 Executive Plaza, Suite 297, Yonkers, NY, 11701.

Larry Harris has a new CD available on his website, www.harrisopera.com.

crichardson@nydailynews.com

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