KATHMANDU, NEPAL -- The walls of a small, brightly lit room are decorated with colorful musical instruments. A guitar is stored in one corner of the room. In another, a keyboard lies on the floor. A table against the wall holds a flute and two traditional Nepalese drums, a tabla and a madal.
Maulik Bhandari, 7, slowly steps into the room, looking down at his feet and gripping his mothers hand. He shows no interest in the instruments or the man seated on a stool in the room.
But when the man begins to strum the guitar, Mauliks eyes light up. He instantly lets go of his mothers hand and moves toward the man.
Maulik is beginning his daily music therapy session at the day care center run by AutismCare Nepal, the first organization to provide music therapy for people with autism, in Kathmandu, Nepals capital.
Within a few minutes, Maulik is singing his favorite English nursery rhyme, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. He keeps up with the melody and enunciates the occasional word. Moving in rhythm with the music, he points skyward whenever the song mentions the star.
Mauliks mother, Alina Bhandari, 33, takes him to the day care center each day, traveling by bus for more than an hour from their home in Lalitpur, a district adjoining Kathmandu district.
Before he began therapy in April 2013, Maulik used to hit people, Bhandari says. He could not sit still or communicate basic needs such as asking for food when he was hungry.
But from the time he began music therapy, Maulik has followed what is said to him and communicates his basic needs. Although he still does not speak in full sentences, he started using single words to communicate last January, Bhandari says.
Music therapy has given a new life to my son, she says. He couldnt speak at all, but now he has started communicating.
AutismCare Nepal introduced music therapy for autistic children in Nepal in 2010. Parents and professionals working with autistic children say music therapy has helped children develop social and communication skills, reduce their aggression and focus their thoughts. The government aims to allocate funding for people with autism, and AutismCare Nepal plans to extend its services beyond Kathmandu.
There is no research available on autism in Nepal because it is a new area of disability studies for the government and scientific researchers, says Raj Kaji Prajapati, chief administrator of AutismCare Nepal.
But AutismCare Nepal estimates there are 200,000 to 300,000 children with autism in Nepal, based on a 2012 U.S. projection that one child in 88 has an autism-spectrum disorder, an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of neurobiological disorders.
In March, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its estimate of the prevalence of autism in the U.S. to one child in 68. AutismCare Nepal has not yet revised its estimate for Nepal according to that ratio.
The organization, which was formed in 2008 by a group of parents of autistic children, discovered the effectiveness of music therapy through Music Therapy Trust Nepal, Prajapati says. The groups continue to partner in developing music therapy programs at AutismCare Nepal, training new therapists and popularizing music therapy as a treatment for autism.
Since AutismCare Nepal began providing music therapy six years ago, it has reached about 400 autistic children in Nepal, he says. The group currently provides music therapy for 13 students.
Music therapy has become a popular treatment for autism in Kathmandu, says Kedar Gandhari, one of two music therapists who provide services through AutismCare Nepal.
The effectiveness of music therapy has become common knowledge, he says. Other organizations have also started to work in collaboration with us. The demand for music therapy is increasing.
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