COLUMBIA, Mo. — Just weeks after birth, Taylor Suprenant spent two months in pediatric intensive care with symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. Step-grandmother Johnna Carrender soothed him with recordings of instrumental and classical music.
"It was hard to comfort him any other way, you couldn't snuggle him," she said. "I feel that that's why he developed such a love of music."
Taylor, now 7, uses a wheelchair, cannot hold his head up for long periods and has cognitive delays, limited arm motion and little or no vision. But the music plays on, as Carrender pays $60 per hour, out-of-pocket, for Taylor to attend twice-weekly, one-hour sessions of music therapy in Columbia. It's disguised as playing the piano, lifting his head to follow the sounds of a drum or gripping a ridged wooden stick as it's scraped.
Advocates for music therapy — used to help individuals reach physical, cognitive or social-emotional therapeutic goals — are working on a measure with some Republican lawmakers to provide state funding for children under 3 born with developmental delays through Missouri's First Steps program. Music therapists are also seeking state recognition.
Reviews of research into the clinical use of music therapy have found positive effects for autistic children, people in end-of-life care and individuals with schizophrenia. "We hide the work in the music," said Kristin Veteto, Taylor's music therapist.
Missouri already pays for music therapy in some settings, including the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled, where Taylor goes. But supporters say the legislation would expand access and prevent untrained practitioners from harming consumers.
Initially, Cape Girardeau Republican Rep. Kathy Swan sponsored a bill looking to set up a music therapist licensure process.
Nationally certified music therapists complete more than a thousand hours of supervised clinical training and use proven techniques, Veteto said. But only three states— North Dakota, Nevada and Georgia — require licensure, and another three — Rhode Island, Utah and Wisconsin — have less-restrictive registries or certifications, according to the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
But state Rep. Eric Burlison, chairman of the House Professional Registration and Licensing Committee, is in principle opposed to creating new licensure requirements.
"It's a very dramatic thing that we should really only hold out for professions that carry great public risk," the Republican from Springfield said.
Instead, Swan is pushing for a change in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's policy on the First Steps program, which is part of the federal disabilities program for young children. Department spokeswoman Sarah Potter said the state's First Steps program doesn't include a specific designation for music therapy, although it can be used by special instructors.
But the special instructor recognition requires a master's degree, according to Kelly Pujols, director of a state taskforce of music therapists. That creates a barrier for a music therapist with only a four-year degree.
The overarching priority, Veteto says, is getting music therapy to those who could be helped by it. She works with Taylor both privately at her home and at his school.
"It wasn't that I wanted somebody to teach him music, I just felt that since he was limited in his other skills — his motor skills and his verbal skills — that music could be a way to tap into what Taylor did have," said Carrender, Taylor's full-time caretaker.
The biggest improvement from the therapy: Taylor can use his right arm and hand, Carrender said. One of the first things Veteto did when she started more than two years ago was have Taylor to strum a guitar. It was the first time Carrender saw him extend his fingers.
Now, Taylor is able to reach forward for things with both arms.
Positioned in front of the piano with Veteto seated beside him, he hits the piano keys. He first plays with his left fingers extended and his right hand in a loose fist. After a while, Veteto sings, "Now we're going to play with righty." She restrains his left hand, he screeches in protest. He hits the keys with his right hand, two fingers extended, and laughs.
The bills sponsored by Swan and a state senator have not yet had a hearing. Swan, at least, said she is hopeful a compromise is possible.
No matter what happens, Carrender plans to advocate for expanded access, saying she wants other children to feel the joy it's brought Taylor.
"I feel like there are many Taylors in this world who would benefit from music therapy," she said.