Filling a Void Through Music

Ryan Hourigan, director of the Ball State University (BSU) School of Music, is on a mission that began when he was a music education doctoral student at Michigan.

“I was teaching trumpet lessons in Chelsea and met a kid named Jacob,” said Hourigan. “He had traumatic brain injury syndrome but was a great player, though he struggled in a traditional band setting. I realized there was a gap-there wasn’t anyone trying to provide a supportive music environment for a kid like this, which led me to focus my dissertation on teaching children with special needs.”

Since then, Hourigan has devoted himself to helping children with special needs participate in the performing arts and reap the benefits that can result, and to sharing his expertise and research with parents and educators.

At BSU, Hourigan co-founded a performing arts program for special-needs children and a training ground for Ball State students interested in working with them. He has also published multiple articles, including the most-downloaded Music Educators Journal article of 2012 (Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understandings and Perspectives, with Amy Hourigan) and authored or co-authored two books on the subject: Teaching Music to Students with Autism, and Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-free Approach (Oxford), now in its fifth printing.

The successes Hourigan has achieved got their start at Michigan. His dissertation-which won the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education Dissertation Award in 2007-was chaired by music education professor Colleen Conway, who encouraged him and his fellow students to dive right into their projects.

“We were learning how to do research, how to do presentations, and how to get our work out in the public from the get-go,” he said. “Colleen wanted us to feel like we were scholars and it didn’t matter if we didn’t have letters after our names; all that mattered was that we went ahead and tried it.”

Conway’s support emboldened Hourigan to present at the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco. “I got to present at this big conference before I even had a college job,” he said. “So when I got my first position at BSU, I thought: ‘I’ve got this; I understand how the tenure process works because of my experiences in Michigan’s PhD program.'”

In 2009, Hourigan, his wife Amy, a BSU instructor of music education, and Michael Daehn, BSU associate professor of theatre education and directing, founded The Prism Project through an immersive learning grant. The Prism Project provides children with special needs opportunities to learn appropriate social skills through performing arts and direct engagement with their peers.

“It’s theatre, music, and dance for children with special needs, with around 80 percent having autism,” said Hourigan. “It’s really a two-pronged project: an art program for kids with disabilities, and a training ground to teach the student teachers how to work with kids with disabilities.”

Prism Project student teachers, called “buddies” in the project’s lingo, receive immersive learning even though they usually have little to no experience teaching special-needs children. The Prism Project provides critical experience and equips teachers with valuable tools before they enter the profession. They learn to apply motivational and instructional strategies, which improves their ability and willingness to teach, work, and empathize with children with disabilities.

At the outset, Hourigan wasn’t sure what shape the program would take. “We didn’t know how the children would react,” he said, “so each year we debriefed, and we brought in special-education and behavioral consultants. We focused on content that would help raise the children’s skills. Over the years, we’ve gone from being really hands-on with the students to focusing on developing an independent spirit to work on their art at their own pace. That has been a really good thrust of the project.”

Children with disabilities, especially autism, can have difficulty making lasting social connections.. “What I think is really cool is to watch the children starting to learn how to interact socially and create their own social groups,” he said. “They hang out with each other, go bowling….What I love about it is that they learn how to do things, how to be on a team, and how to work together toward a goal.”

Because his wife is one of the directors of the program, the Prism Project is entwined with Hourigan’s personal life. “Most people are able to go home at five o’clock and leave their work on the shelf,” said Hourigan. “When we go home at night, we’re talking about what we want to do for a Saturday program, or who would be a good hire to be our next music coordinator.”

The Hourigans’ two children are also vested in the Prism Project. “We are raising two kids on the (autism) spectrum and my sons have had limited social connections prior to the program,” said Hourigan. “Now, if someone they know has a birthday, or is planning an outing, they are getting an invitation, they are doing their Facebook thing. I think if we didn’t have the Prism Project, they wouldn’t have those connections.”

The project has yielded such promising results that a satellite program was launched at Tulane University in New Orleans three years ago, with a slightly different demographic: the Tulane program serves African American students who not only have special needs, but are also from poverty-stricken areas.

Hourigan hopes to continue expanding the Prism Project to other satellite locations in the near future while continuing to advocate for and lead workshops on teaching children with special needs. This summer, he and Amy will teach a workshop at U-M, part of SMTD’s Department of Music Education Summer Workshops for masters students and professionals seeking development enrichment.

A consultant to University Musical Society (UMS) on accessibility for youth education programs, Hourigan returned to Michigan twice before in 2014-15 to participate in the UMS Workshops for Teachers series. One of those workshops, “Music and Children with Autism: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers,” also launched a long-term UMS K-12 focus on accessibility and inclusion in the arts.

Hourigan’s area of research has also opened up other new opportunities. In 2012, he gave a presentation on integrating the arts and children with autism at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which led to a permanent role with the organization’s national speaker’s bureau. The collaboration allows Hourigan to travel throughout the country to share his research and educate others about his true passion and life’s work. The pinnacle was being a guest of the United States State Department for a cultural exchange with Trinidad, where he presented an arts and disabilities workshop.

“The Prism Project is really entrepreneurial,” said Hourigan. “I started it from scratch. It’s about taking a risk and creating something successful, and I think that is the way forward for schools of music, colleges, or fine arts programs. If you feel like there is a gap, the best way to solve the problem is to create the solution.”


By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.