TAMPA — Inside a nondescript office on Busch Boulevard, directions are doled out in song, bare feet are encouraged and smiles are collected like precious gems.
As fun as it sounds, not everyone is enthusiastic to enter.
Even the brightly colored walls and a hallway mural of The Little Mermaid do little to entice the most reluctant clients further.
That's when Mattie Mingst picks up her acoustic guitar.
A music therapist, Mingst knows the power music has when working with children with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.
And, sure enough, when she strums, kids tend to line up behind her.
"It calms them right down," Mingst said.
At Therabilities Performing Arts Center, where Mingst can often be found singing a catchy children's tune, music is therapy. Launched in the spring by Lourdes Quinones, a physical therapist, the center also offers art and dance therapy classes to children with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.
The group classes often resemble playtime more than therapy, but that's the point, Quinones said.
"We want to reach the child in a therapeutic way but in a nontherapy environment," she said.
Students, she said, don't realize that they are learning valuable school-readiness skills, such as how to raise their hands and wait in line.
On a recent afternoon, three children marched across a pretend farm, picking up paper fruits and vegetables while Mingst sang the directions to make it easier to understand.
"Some nonverbal children sing before they talk," Quinones said.
The class then moved on to art, where paper plates were transformed into pumpkins with the help of colored paper and glue. Quinones strapped ankle and wrist weights onto 5-year-old Donovan McClain, at his request, to help him calm down and concentrate.
"Applying deep pressure or compression helps quiet the neurons that are going crazy," Mingst said.
With the pumpkins complete, the class danced its way to an obstacle course across the hall, where the children followed a path over a step and onto a small trampoline.
The hour-long class ended with one more song. This one slow, quiet and calming.
As the children wound down, Donovan's mother, Yves McClain, of Wesley Chapel, watched. The classes have been helpful in treating Donovan's speech delay, she said.
"He has a speech therapist at school, too, and combined with this, it's really improving," McClain said. "And he has such a good time."
Marianna Rodriguez enrolled her 4-year-old son, Mateo, in the class three months ago. Mateo is on the autism spectrum and she has already noticed a difference in her child's behavior.
"He's more social and following directions more," Rodriguez said. "This has been a real blessing."
Because the classes are group therapy instead of individual sessions, they are not usually covered by Medicaid or private health insurers, so parents have to pay out of pocket. Quinones is currently exploring options to become a nonprofit organization so the classes would be available to those who can't afford the extra cost.
"The community is looking for alternative therapy methods," Quinones said. "In groups, they are motivated by each other. For many, one-on-one therapy might not work well but in group settings they thrive."
The center currently has about 20 clients, but Quinones hopes to grow as time goes on. But mostly, she just wants to continue collecting smiles.
"Before you know it, the kids who didn't want to come," Quinones said, "don't want to leave."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.