How Music Helped This Nurse and Her Son with ASD Communicate Again

Danielle Filippone (center) with her son, Eric (left, and her daughter (right).Share on Pinterest
Danielle Filippone (center) with her son, Eric (left, and her daughter (right). Image Provided by Northwell Health
  • A nurse who appeared on America’s Got Talent has learned to use singing to communicate with her son who is living with autism spectrum disorder.
  • Autism spectrum disorder can affect a child’s ability to communicate.
  • Studies show the benefits of using music to communicate.

Up until he was 18 months old, Danielle Filippone’s son, Eric, said “momma” to her.

“He started to regress all of the sudden and I couldn’t keep his focus and I couldn’t even get him to respond to his name. I felt like nothing was working. I was frustrated,” Filippone told Healthline.

She began to understand that her son’s experience with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could impact his ability to communicate and express himself.

In fact, Parker L. Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist and owner of Central Ohio Pediatric Behavioral Health said as the level to which ASD affects individuals varies widely, so does the impact on communication.

“Some individuals diagnosed with ASD can communicate well and have an expansive vocabulary, while others do not have any verbal communication at all,” he told Healthline.

For Filippone, an encounter in the family kitchen ignited hope. Eric was trying to get his mom’s attention by grunting.

“He forgot how to point; he didn’t have any kind of body language. I couldn’t figure out if he wanted something on the counter,” said Filippone.

She began picking up things and asking if they were what he wanted. “We both broke down crying out of frustration because we couldn’t understand each other,” she said.

To calm herself, she started humming, which prompted Eric to look at her.

“It was an epiphany. The way he looked at me, he realized I was mommy and I was there to help him, and doing that gave him enough focus on me that I could show him the things on the counter until he saw the water he wanted, and he kind of leaned forward, which expressed that [water was] what he wanted,” Filippone said.

From that point on, she made up songs for everything they did in the house including mealtime, bath time, playtime, and bedtime so that Eric knew what to expect. By the time Eric was 3 years old, he began saying “momma” again.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life to hear him say it again. Then from then on, he’d start saying more and more words,” she said.

The relationship between ASD and music is longstanding, said Huston. He pointed to a 2018 study that demonstrated that 8 to 12 weeks of music intervention can improve parent-reported social communication.

“Researchers hypothesize that music helps to strengthen the connections between auditory, language, and motor regions of the brain, which are involved in communication,” Huston said.

Kevin Ayres, PhD, co-director of the Center for Autism and Behavioral Education Research at the University of Georgia said patterns and repetition in music can help individuals with autism better understand the give-and-take of a conversation.

“Songs can model appropriate diction and are often easy to recall, especially children’s songs,” he told Healthline.

Ayres also said natural environment training, such as modeling language, and making learning to communicate fun can help parents communicate with their children.

This proved to be true for Eric. Today, he is 8 years old and still using music to communicate and learn.

“We have fun together now making up songs. We play a rhyming game where we make up a song and try to rhyme words cause he’s learning rhyming in school,” said Filippone.

Sometimes Eric even sings his mom a bedtime song.

Northwell Health Nurse Choir.Share on Pinterest
Danielle Filippone with the rest of the Northwell Health Nurse Choir on stage at “America’s Got Talent.” Image Provided by NBC

Filippone’s grandmother was an Off-Broadway opera singer during the 1940s and 1950s, a time in which she played Madama Butterfly. While she never got to see her grandmother perform, she listened to her sing on records. Additionally, her mother was a singer, too.

“So singing was always a part of the house…I learned a lot from the two of them,” Filippone said.

She performed in her elementary school choir and high school musicals. While she always wanted to sing professionally, she felt a pull toward becoming a nurse. Now, in her 13th year as an RN, Filippone works at Staten Island Hospital in the operating room.

In 2020, her love for singing and nursing meshed when Northwell Health in New York put out a call to frontline nurses to audition for its virtual Northwell Health Nurse Choir. The choir was formed to spread a message of hope and perseverance during COVID-19.

“I thought singing felt so good and being in the middle of COVID, not being able to recognize my face behind the mask, I needed something to cheer me up,” Filippone said.

With encouragement from her mom, she sent in a 30-second clip of her singing to audition. To her delight, she was one of 50 nurses selected to join the choir.

Their first performance was on Nurse Heroes Live, which premiered on NBC Peacock Thanksgiving 2020. It has been viewed by over 10 million households to date. The video caught the eye of America’s Got Talent, which encouraged the choir to try out. However, Northwell only sent 18 nurses to the show for its audition. After sending in another singing clip, Filippone made the cut.

“I was totally shocked and felt like I hit the lottery,” she said.

In June 2021, the choir performed on the show and received the Golden Buzzer from judge Howie Mandel. They eventually advanced to the season 16 finale.

“To see my kids looking at the TV and saying, ‘that’s momma’ it brought the fire back in me,” said Filippone.

The group went on to perform at the White House, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and Broadway. They also made appearances at Time’s Person of the Year awards, the “Today” show, ANA/ANCC Magnet Pathway Conference, as well as “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” and multiple professional sporting events.

Filippone also sings to patients she cares for and has been coined “the singing nurse” by her colleagues. She even takes song requests during patients’ hospital stays.

“I see patients when they’ve already been assessed and are in their gown and sitting there trying to keep themselves covered and feeling vulnerable…I sing to them as they are being put under anesthesia,” she said.

She says singing helps patients feel more comfortable and gives them a sense that they’re in this together.

She especially channels her singing skills when working with pediatric patients who have special needs and sensory issues.

“I’d ask the parent what shows they like and I’d start singing a song from the show and they’d see that their kids would focus on me and I’d tell them I have a son with autism and this helps him,” Filippone said.

Combining her singing, parenting, and nursing skills is something she never thought was possible.

“I felt like I had to put music and singing aside in a closet somewhere, but I don’t have to do that anymore. I get to do the two things I love while being a mom to an amazing boy and girl,” she said.

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