Living with autism and in some stressful situations, Cathy Chafin was prone to lashing out and throwing tantrums as she struggled to communicate.

Her mother, Augusta resident Darla Chafin, searched desperately for a therapist who could speak her daughter’s language — music — before finding Ellen Bowman in 2005.

These days Cathy is calmer and more social, Darla Chafin said, thanks to a better living situation at a group home in Auburn and regular appointments with Bowman.

“When Cathy’s bad, the world falls apart,” Darla Chafin said. “But at the moment, she’s been growing beautifully in the past year or so. … She’s surprised us all and is probably the happiest I’ve seen her in 40 years.”

Chafin’s progress is highlighted in a short documentary that Bowman recently presented at a conference in Toronto and that she and the filmmaker hope to make available as a resource and inspiration to parents of children with disabilities.

“Just because someone’s silent, it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot happening inside,” Bowman said. “Music may be a person’s path, and you just might not know it yet.”

Cathy Chafin, 45, is nearly nonverbal and has been living in institutional settings since she was about 8 years old, including Pineland Center in New Gloucester. Since Pineland closed in 1996, she has lived in a series of group homes.

Bowman is the counselor at Belgrade Central School, where some of the practices she uses with Chafin are a regular part of her work with students. Bowman uses visual arts but loves music best.

“Music has been my life raft from the age of 3,” she said. “I learned piano sitting on the bench with my father.”

Bowman speaks to Chafin in a tonal, lilting voice and sometimes taps on a drum with each syllable. If she’s engaged, Chafin responds by tapping out the same rhythm.

Other times Chafin leads the interactions, and if she wants to communicate with other residents at the home, Bowman lets her choose instruments to share.

“I’m trying to encourage her to sing more, to find her voice,” Bowman said. “It’s clearly so healthy for her.”

Darla Chafin said her daughter has loved music since she was a small child.

“She’s more rhythmic than any of us have ever been in my family,” she said. “You’d see her tapping her feet or wiggling around or just trying to dance. It’s a happy thing for her, a warm security blanket. She just feels more comfortable when she hears music.”

Music has become a way for Cathy Chafin to connect with other people, a respite and a source of enjoyment.

Bowman’s work with Chafin was documented in a 16-minute film, “Cathy’s Talk-Song,” shown at the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing conference in Toronto earlier this month. One of the goals of the conference is to explore the use of singing to enhance health and well-being.

Bowman said the film was well-received, with viewers saying it could serve as a message of hope for discouraged parents.

Some people at the conference said the film would be stronger if it gave more of a sense of Chafin’s earlier behavior, but because she is doing well now, none of that was captured on film.

The filmmaker, Massachusetts-based Liesel de Boor, said she may do further interviews with Bowman and Darla Chafin to include more of that information in the film. Once rights are secured to some of the music Bowman used during filming, the film could be distributed through parent support networks.

De Boor said the film demonstrates the importance of the arts in giving meaning to many people’s lives, and especially the importance of art therapies for people who use other modes of interacting with the world.

“So much of Ellen’s work is really intently observing, and also I think for people who don’t have access to verbal language, they’re communicating all the time in ways that you don’t use, and sometimes quite subtly,” de Boor said. “People communicate in very different ways, and we aren’t going to pick up on it unless we really listen, unless we really look.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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