FARMINGTON — Art and music, expressive therapies, can hold a key to communication with children with special needs, according to therapist Ellen Bowman.

Bowman returned to the University of Maine at Farmington on Friday to participate in the 6th annual Teaching and Working in a Diverse World Conference. It’s part of the spring University Forum Series, Encounters.

A graduate of UMF with a major in special education, Bowman told a room full of students about her use of music and art to reach children.

“My calling is to help children by learning what are their worries and what they are coping with,” she said.

Bowman counsels at Belgrade Central School.

Children coping with anger, death and other developmental issues find peace and serenity from playing instruments or drawing. As they channel their aggression, anxiety and anger, they become calmer, and the feelings are released through the music or art.


“Healing happens and music is definitely a way,” Bowman said.

The instruments are not necessarily traditional guitars or pianos. They can be items developed on a shoestring budget, she said. Some of the items include empty tin cans and a large water bottle, which can be struck with wooden sticks, and rocks in a small, covered Altoids can.

Although she works with children, Bowman told the students about a mother of an autistic adult, Cathy, who asked her to meet with her. Through sessions with Cathy, using music and a variety of instruments, calmness replaced anger, she said.

The work has been documented in a short film, “Cathy’s Talk-Song,” which premiered Friday during the UMF conference. The documentary will be shared through other venues, libraries and schools around the state, she said.

Music provided a means of communication between Cathy’s inner person and her outside world, Bowman said. It brought Cathy smiles and a sense of contentment as she swayed to the rhythm of the music or listened to her mother’s voice as she sang improvised songs, she said.

A trust developed between Bowman and Cathy. They clicked non-verbally, she said of sessions at Cathy’s group home. The goal to help Cathy connect to  the outside world was partially realized as she became more social with other residents, sharing the “musical instruments” with others.


After graduating from UMF, where she found the faculty, particularly Anna Small, supportive of her desire to explore expressive therapies, Bowman pursued an advanced degree in Expressive Therapies in Boston.

After several years in private practice as a child psychotherapist, she took a clinical post at a children’s hospital in Scotland. She has worked with children in India, Russia, Cuba and other countries, she told the students.

Now she applies some of the practices shared in “Cathy’s Talk-Song” as part of her work at the Belgrade school, she said.

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