Music Therapy May Help Children with Autism

By Marcela De Vivo, mother of a child with a severe disability and freelance writer who works with Oltarsh law firms.  She writes on immigration law, health and special education law and inclusion. 

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.

kids music

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



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.

15 Replies to “Music Therapy May Help Children with Autism”

  1. Music can also be a very important key to taking part in typical community activities as a full and respected participant. MANY people with autism who may have compromised communication and/or social skills are more than capable of playing an instrument in a band or ensemble, singing in a chorus, or taking part in a handbell or vocal choir in a religious setting!

  2. As a non-verbal and non-threatening medium, music medical care is safe and helpful for unfit youngsters. Music activities are developed to deal with their special desires. for instance, social play is one space during which youngsters with syndrome struggle, however musical games that embrace passing AN object back and forth are compelling whereas encouraging social interactions. With music, you furthermore might have the choice to form a sound along, and plenty of common symptoms of syndrome may be self-addressed. Eye contact may be inspired with applause games, attention problems may be self-addressed by taking part in AN instrument; and a child’s favorite music may be used as a bequest for achieving cooperative social behaviors like sitting with a gaggle of kids in an exceedingly circle.
    and nice post thanks..
    Treatment for Autism in India

  3. Oh. After a long time i got something interesting about autism. I love
    the way your discussed everything. We also support autism kids. Right
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    your support. Check out for more information. Hope he will get maximum support from you guys.

  4. Awesome theory…music is the best medicine for most diseases related to childrens..its a wonderful research.. it has to be practiced more..people have to understand the magic of music..I definately would love to learn more about it..please send me the articles related to the benefits of music in treating autism and how does it help..please send…

  5. Senior Project Junior Year (Ms. Hills 1st Period A.P. English 3 Class)
    Saturday May 17, 2014:
    Today I got to go and meet a Spanish family that has a special little girl and I got to do a little music therapy session with her. The little girl’s name was Estefani and she has a few illnesses that prohibit facial expressions, movement in her body, and simple everyday task that many people do without thinking. When Estefani was born she showed no signs of illness, in fact she seemed like a perfectly happy baby girl. However, when she turned 1 she started showing signs of paralysis in her legs. She would trip over things and sometimes miss a step when she walked. One day she had an episode and they took her to UK hospital and they ran tests on her. They’re diagnosis was that she has ascending paralysis. Her mom and dad started talking her to therapy for her legs and for a short while she started doing better. But around her 2 birthday she had another episode. They took her to the hospital again and this time it was different. They diagnosed her with ascending paralysis and CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy) which according to the NINDS Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyurethane (CIDP) Information Page is, “Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) is a neurological disorder characterized by progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms. The disorder, which is sometimes called chronic relapsing polyneuropathy, is caused by damage to the myelin sheath (the fatty covering that wraps around and protects nerve fibers) of the peripheral nerves. Although it can occur at any age and in both genders, CIDP is more common in young adults, and in men more so than women. It often presents with symptoms that include tingling or numbness (beginning in the toes and fingers), weakness of the arms and legs, loss of deep tendon reflexes (areflexia), fatigue, and abnormal sensations. CIDP is closely related to Guillain-Barre syndrome and it is considered the chronic counterpart of that acute disease.” Since it is more common in adults and males it was shocking that a 3 year old girl had it. When she was diagnosed with CIDP the doctors said she would have 6 months left to live. So far she has lived a little over a year of the doctor’s diagnosis and is about to celebrate her 4th birthday. Estefani has no ability to swallow, is ventilator supportive (can’t breath by herself), can’t talk, and shows little to no facial expressions. She does have some movement in right arm and a little movement in her legs. I got to talk to her mother and her caretaker about Estefani and the things she like. She loves kisses, the color pink, play-doh, music and dancing, coloring, and she absolutely adores her tio Carlos. When I first saw Estefani she wouldn’t look at me at all. I asked her caretaker why she did this and she said it was her way of showing me that she is shy. After a while my 9 year old sister started to play with her and Estefani would look her for the remainder of time. After a while of me playing music I finally (thank the Lord) played a song that she liked and after that she would look at me. It was her way of showing me that she is comfortable while me. About halfway through the “session” (I guess you could call it that) we had to pause because since she can’t cough or swallow they had to manually remove the mucus from her nasal passages. I found out more about this and every night her mom and dad switch on and off sleeping in her room. Each night they wake up every hour and switch her sleeping position from one side to the other and suction the mucus so she can breath properly through her ventilator. When I was playing music We would ask her question and each time she would shake her head but her mom would give me yes or no questions. What I didn’t notice was whenever she blinks she is saying yes. So I would ask her question and watch her blink or shake her head. I thought that was pretty cool. Overall it was good experience and I am so glad I got to do the SPJY because it has changed my outlook on the effects of therapy. I now look at therapy in a more positive light and I think it can be really effective when needed.

  6. Why are parents with kids in public schools being forced to advocate for their children to stay in music programs in higher grades, such as band and orchestra? My son’s friend was actually told, “We can no longer make the accomodations you need.” By the highschool band director. I’m so mad I can’t see straight.

  7. I just came across your article and am so grateful for it. I am a music therapist and LCAT in NYC working with autistic children. Your article is so well written, organized, and accessible. You clearly did your research and sited some important studies. Thank you so much for this!

  8. Has you seen “Rain Man” have you studied the part where the character, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, a character with High Functioning autism, suddenly presents with self-injurious behavior in the form of slapping himself in the head? The autistic character in this movies suddenly presents with head slapping when he is forced with the idea he must board a plane that he thinks is dangerous. Now, what would make a more NON VERBAL severely-autistic person sometimes present with self-injurious behavior? Could it be when they are perceiving something that they feel is a threat to their need for fixed routines? Their unspoken need for knowing what is happening? Their need for knowing they need more supports? Or more therapy? Or an increased level of care and supports? The answer is yes. Even the most severely autistic people among us, by no fault of their own, would have behavioral meltdown if forced to do something they know is not supporting their needs right? So that said, if we’ve already seen that a higher functioning autistic person will present with SIB, is it not reasonable to think that a lower functioning autistic person, placed in situations where they aren’t given proper levels of support, or are placed in situations where people assigned to their care don’t have a clue about what they feel or need would therefore exhibit more SIBs in this situation? People with autism no matter what their level of functioning are prone to self abuse, so it’s up to us who are able to adequately speak for them, to advocate for the supports and services they need to be safe and healthy and live a more productive life. IF that means, in certain cases, that the level of support would be round the clock care or round the clock nursing care, based on their individual needs than why aren’t the autism experts and all the agencies in charge of delivering services for autistic adults, advocating for them to receive the supports they need instead of forcing parents to go before administrative law judges to get the services they so obviously need? And sometimes, some the more severely autistic person is even more vulnerable to changes in routine or inadequate supports than what is provided by the state, and they know this, they feel the pain of their family trying everyday to get them the services they need, in the face of apathy and callous disregard from staff withing the agencies serving disabled….very strange and chronic situation that has yet to be fully investigated..why have these agencies if the staff at these agencies is constantly fighting AGAINST the severely autistic person’s level of care needed?

  9. Why is this article and so many articles about autism focusing on little children who may or may not have autism? This is such ignorance. And if you’re a non speaking teen with severe autism and you try music therapy, what if you TINNITUS? What if nobody has figured out that you have this disorder and it’s driving you crazy? But now they introduce MUSIC therapy? Well, heck maybe it will help but my point here is TINNITUS research SUCKS it’s a major failure in medical management. To this day the idiots researching this have no clue how to diagnosis it or treat it. FAIL.

  10. My daughter ASHA who lives in India with autism loves Music, stores the tunes in her memory, recollects when ever we starts the same music or songs, she brings the first two sentences of song when we tries to play the songs and may be she knows around more than 3000 songs including Indian and westerns.,

    she likes more vocal and easy listening songs and some times for drums, she dances for Madonna and Celindion songs (western music).,

    She can sit in Music for hours in listening with full concentration and she was in Laural ruff special education school, California before moving to India.,

    we may return to US in the coming year for treatment using music therapy.,

    Today Mr.Oliver Sacks who passed away misses my Daughter who is the reality on his Book Musicophillia

  11. My son is 3 years old and doesnt speak and has always had a problem with commands to an extent that his teacher thought he was deaf I notice how excited he was when we switched on a music chanel or radio, I then decided to send him for music classes, and since after those classes he seems happier, does the high 5s, always humming twinkle little star and other songs he learns from the class, he has even began to say Mama when addressing me unlike when he was just bublling the word, I would suggest that all parents with autistic children try this.

  12. Such important findings on music therapy,music therapy plays a major role in children with special needs and the general public at large,it has a wonderful healing effect that can not easily be compared to all the other therapies.good work!

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