Individuals of all ages and all abilities can benefit from music therapy. Previously, music therapy has been used to support emotional, cognitive and social development in many populations. Music therapy may help to promote wellness by managing stress, enhancing memory, and improving communication.
A 2004 study from the Journal of Music Therapy found that music in interventions used with children and teens with ASD can improve social behaviors, increase focus and attention, increase communication attempts (vocalizations, verbalizations, gestures, and vocabulary), reduce anxiety, and improve body awareness and coordination.
Many additional studies have found that children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) respond well to music. Often, individuals with autism respond positively to music when little else is able to get their attention, which makes music a potential therapeutic tool.
Music encourages social interactions.
A 2009 study by Kim, Wigram, & Gold found that children with autism showed more emotional expression and social engagement during music therapy sessions than in play sessions without music. These children also responded to the therapist’s requests more frequently during music therapy than in play sessions without music.
Additionally, a skilled therapist can use music with children to increase their social interaction and improve social skills. Passing and sharing instruments, music and movement games, gathering around a central instrument, learning to listen and singing of greetings are just a few of the ways music therapy sessions can increase interaction.
Music can improve behavior.
In a 2012 study of 41 children with autism over a ten-month period, See found that weekly music therapy sessions seemed to improve overall behavior, with the most improvement seen in inattentive behaviors. Children in this study experienced hour-long sessions of music therapy once a week, and their conduct was monitored against a checklist of target behavior like restlessness, aggression and noisiness. More than half the group improved by one or two points on the scale after the music therapy sessions.
Music can improve communication.
Up to thirty-percent of children with autism are nonverbal, and many low-functioning children have difficulty following verbal commands, and have difficult time with social awareness like understanding body language.
Wan et. al. (2004) found music to improve the mapping of sounds to actions, by connecting the auditory and motor sections of the brain, which may help improve understanding of verbal commands. By pairing music with actions, and with repetitive training, the brain pathways needed to speak can be reinforced and improved.
Music can reduce anxiety.
Children with autism are more sensitive to anxiety than the average child, as they are unable to filter out provoking stimuli. A small four-week study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse in 2006, found preliminary success in reducing anxiety in patients with autism through music therapy. After 16 short, 20-minute sessions, during which the treatment patients listened to rhythmic music, the participants who received the therapy appeared to have decreased anxiety-related behaviors.
Classical music or music with a steady rhythm is thought to be the best for alleviating anxiety in children with autism due to the predictability of the beat.
Music is fun.
Perhaps most importantly of all, music therapy is engaging and enjoyable for children with autism. Music therapy is able to bring about changes in social behavior and cognitive ability only through repeated and prolonged sessions—and the best way to keep children working at something is to ensure that they enjoy it. Almost like another form of play, music therapy is something ASD children can engage in without having it feel like work.
Music is an effective way to communicate with and reach children with autism. Music therapy seems to be able to improve social skills, behavior, anxiety and more—and might be the one thing that can reach a child with autism when nothing else will.
Marcela De Vivo is a writer, music enthusiast and mother of son with special needs. Through music therapy her son, who has severe cerebral palsy, is able to have fun and communicate more effectively with his family. Follow his journey by visiting www.PrayForNathan.org.
Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13(4), 389-409. PMID: 19535468
See, C. M. (2012) The Use of Music and Movement Therapy to Modify Behaviour of Children with Autism. Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum., 20 ( 4): 1103 – 1116
Wan CY, Bazen L, Baars R, Libenson A, Zipse L, et al. (2011) Auditory-Motor Mapping Training as an Intervention to Facilitate Speech Output in Non-Verbal Children with Autism: A Proof of Concept Study. PLoS ONE 6(9): e25505. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025505
Whipple J. (2004). Music in intervention for children and adolescents with autism: a meta-analysis. Journal of Music Therapy. 41(2):90-106. PubMed PMID: 15307805.