Therapeutic Listening, August 9, 2008

Question:

What do you know about the Therapeutic Listening program from Vitallinks.net? ... I want to know what you have seen of it if anything. I want to try it and my husband is convinced it's "snake oil" or a hoax.

Robert's response:

My daughter received occupational therapy for a sensory integration disorder when she was four years old, and her treatment included Therapeutic Listening.

She made excellent progress and was eventually dismissed from therapy, but I should hasten to add that therapeutic listening was not the only treatment she received; she also got therapeutic brushing, joint compression, vestibular stimulation, and a number of other interventions, so it's hard to say exactly what benefits the listening had for her, if any.

My understanding of the idea behind Therapeutic Listening is that, since the auditory system of the brain is connected to, and interacts with, other sensory systems, listening to music with certain frequencies filtered or enhanced stimulates the entire sensory system to work together. This strengthens the neural pathways among the various systems and enables them to exchange information more efficiently.

Therapeutic Listening appears to be based on good science, but there is a lot of skepticism in the professional community, because a lot of the science has been kept under wraps as "trade secrets." For independent researchers to do the thorough and rigorous testing necessary to verify its validity, Vitallinks would have to hand over the details of their technology to people not associated with the company, who would then be free to publish those details, opening the door for competitors to copy the technology and grab a piece of Vitallinks' market share.

Understandably, Vitallinks is not eager for that to happen. They've poured a lot of money into the development of their technology and they want a return on their investment. Who can blame them?

The Vitallinks website quotes a 12-week study in which children were first given more traditional occupational therapy for four weeks. Then, for the next eight weeks, the therapeutic listening program was added to what they were already receiving. Their ability was tested before starting the study, at the midpoint just before adding Therapeutic Listening, and again after completion of the Therapeutic Listening program. On average, the ten participants' scores improved more during the Therapeutic Listening stage. I'm not sure why the study was not designed with an equal amount of time in the 'traditional' phase (4 weeks) as the 'experimental' phase (8 weeks). Generally, I would expect a child to make more progress in eight weeks of therapy than in four weeks of therapy, so it's hard to say whether the greater gains in the second phase were really due to the addition of Therapeutic Listening, or simply a result of getting twice as much therapy.

This does not mean the technology is "snake oil," but it does mean we can't conclusively prove exactly what it does. The Vitallinks web site claims that the study verifies their product's effectiveness "as part of an overall sensory integrative approach to occupational therapy in elementary school-age children" and "along with sensory diet strategies" (emphasis mine). This echoes my own feeling after using therapeutic listening for my daughter--that it may have had an effect, but since she was getting other interventions as well, it's hard to say how much of her progress came as a result of therapeutic listening. Also, keep in mind that my daughter was receiving treatment for sensory integration, not speech or language. I know that SLPs can become certified in Therapeutic Listening, but I have no personal experience with its use in treatment of auditory processing disorders or any other communication disorders.

I would definitely steer clear of any therapist that proposes to use Therapeutic Listening alone, since even the company that sells it doesn't recommend this. But, if a reputable OT that you trust wants to incorporate it into a treatment program that includes a healthy mix of other treatments as well, I'd be inclined to go with her recommendations.

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