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Autism and Music Therapy

katherine's picture

Autism is a neurological disability which affects the development of the brain as it relates to social interactions.  In recent years, this disorder has gained attention in the American public due to the increase in the frequency of cases (3).  Once considered a rare disorder, it is now found in 5 or 6 per 1000 people compared to one in every 2000 in the 1960s (1).  Little is known about the cause of the disorder, however a myriad of strategies have been tested to mitigate its effects.  One of these methods that has proved to be particularly successful is the use of music therapy.  

In order to understand that positive impact that music has on the lives of autistic people, it is important to understand the symptoms associated with the disorder.  Autism can range from very mild to very severe cases (1) resulting in a wide variety of symptoms associated with the disorder.  Typically, these individuals are unable to build social relationships and communicate with others (both verbally and non-verbally) in the same capacity that non-autistic people can (2).  Most often diagnosed by age three, signs begin in infancy.  Children will often not respond to their caregiver’s touch and go limp when they reach to pick up the child rather than anticipating contact.  As the child grows older, autistic children reach developmental milestones such as walking and talking either very early or very delayed (2).

Regardless of their developmental pattern as a toddler, by the time the child reaches school age, their inability to build social relationships becomes clear.  One symptom of this is their inability to understand that perspectives other than their own exist or “theory of mind” (2).  For example, when an autistic child is asked to show a picture to another child, the autistic child will often not turn the picture towards the other child because they do not understand that the other child has a perspective that is different from their own (2). 

Accompanying their inability to form social relationships, those with autism frequently exhibit unusual and repetitive behaviors (1).  For example, they will insist on a certain routine and become very upset if it changes.  This can include food they have at certain meals, going to a destination the same route every time, spinning around in a circle, repeating a certain word or phrase and wearing the same clothes (2)(4).  

Autistic people often have sensory impairments and are hypersensitive to certain sounds, textures, or smells (2).  For example, they may perceive some people to have a much louder or high pitched voice than others.  Additionally, they may not be able to filter out noises in crowds which leads to confusion and discomfort in these situations.  Some demonstrate difficulty expressing themselves through speech resulting in impersonal grunts, shrieks, humming, echolalia, or complete mutism (4).     

Music therapy has proven to be a very effective method in dealing with autism, allowing individuals to build social relationships and learn how to properly behavior in social situations.  Interestingly, many with autism frequently show a heightened interest in music (5)(7).  In fact, a disproportionate number are exceptionally talented in this area and have perfect pitch or play certain instruments with remarkable musicality and little or no formal training (4) (7).  While they are unable to communicate verbally with others, music is an avenue for many autistic people to express themselves and communicate with others nonverbally (7).  

As discussed above, the overarching symptom of all autistic individuals is their inability to connect socially with others.  Music serves as the perfect liaison between the autistic person and others because it is a nonverbal (and for those with autism non-threatening) form of communication (4).  In therapy sessions, musical games such as throwing ball back and forth to the tune of a song encourage the autistic person to socially interact with others.  Likewise, holding an instrument or clapping near the eyes can promote eye contact (4).  Music puts the individual at ease, allowing for strides in social interactions to follow.           

Numerous families have noted the drastic improvement that music therapy caused for their autistic child (8)(9)(11).  One specific method involves the use of therapeutic songs to teach children how to behave in certain social settings.  Songs with lyrics to one of the child’s favorite songs are created that serve as directions for how to behave in certain social situations.  For example, one boy in a study would make nonsense noises and yell at inappropriate times during dinnertime.  Another girl would sneak into the kitchen looking for food out of boredom without asking her parents.  After the children have heard the song for a number of days, they are able to repeat verses of the song.  Additionally, they typically engaged in the undesirable behavior less frequently (11).  What is it about music that makes these children more responsive to directions that are sung to them?  

Although the causes of autism are largely unknown, it is apparent from numerous studies and anecdotal evidence that music has a positive impact for autistic individuals as well as their families.  Music is an effective way for these people to engage in social interactions, communicate with others, and modify undesirable and disruptive behavior (11).  Perhaps this unique response to music that so many autistic individuals express can provide clues as scientists strive to gain understanding of the cause of this disorder. 

WWW Sources
(3) Yazbak, Edward.  “Autism in the United States: A Perspective”  Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons: 8.4 Winter 2003.
(8) “All One Girl Needed in her Struggle with Autism was Help from Mozart!” The Exceptional Parent: 36.4 April 2006.
(9) Allgood, Nicole.  “Parents Perceptions of Family-based Group Music Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”  Music Therapy Perspectives: 23.2  Silver Spring: 2005.
(11) Pasiali, Vanessa.  “The Use of Prescriptive Therapeutic Songs in a Home-Based Environment to Promote Social Skills Acquisition by Children with Autism: Three Case Studies.”  Music Therapy Perspectives.  22.1 Silver Spring: 2004. 




sarvin ansar hosein's picture name is sarvin.I am name is sarvin.I am from Iran.I am studing child clinical psychology in Iran and i want to work on my proposal and my matter for proposal is music therapy for autistic children.but there is not music therapy field in iran.because of that i have lots of problems for my proposal.please help me.thanks alot.

Leah's picture

Dianna, In need your last name !

Hey Dianna, I would like to use you for a research paper about how music therapy helps children with autism. If you still are on here ever please respond! I need your last name and credentials, please and thank you.

Dianna's picture

Music therapy as an adjunct

Music therapy is a wonderful adjunct in the treatment of autism. As an occupational therapist working with children with a wide range of autism spectrum disorders I usually incorporate music with sensory integration (SI)techniques to improve motor coordination and planning as the music provides a rhythm to initiate movement. This is also the reason that therapy using interactive metronome techniques works so well and is becoming much more popular within the therapy world. Not only have my own 2 boys with autism spectrum disorders benefited from the incorporation of music and SI therapy, but they have made exceptional leaps and bounds toward recovery using the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) which helps the gut heal and rids the body of the toxins and heavy metal overload that causes the odd behaviors seen in our children. Yes, it is hard to do the diet only because you have to prepare all the foods, but it would be harder to deal with these same behaviors in a hormonal teenager. The site provides excellent information on this special diet.

Serendip Visitor's picture

I read your comment and it

I read your comment and it made me a little curious to ask, since yo uare in the field of therapy and work with children who have Autism. I'm working on a paper, for a writing class, and I am curious as to your views on Music as a therapy and how it would compare to using Discrete Trail Training as a method of aiding a students education.

Linda's picture

autistic grandson

My grandson is 9 years old and has some communication skills but does a lot of echolalia. He has been doing more stimming with hands in front of face. He goes to a public school and is in 2nd grade. He also has a shadow who is very good with him and is an answer to prayer for us. He does very well academicaly but is starting to have more tantrums and meltdowns. I think he is getting very frustrated not being able to communicate his feelings. We have been looking for something other than drugs, something non invasive for him. This music therapy sound wonderful since he loves music. If you could steer us in the right direction it would be greatly appreciated.

Serendip Visitor's picture

i heard about the program,

i heard about the program, that literally anyone can get training in. It is called the "Sun Rise (not sure if it is one word or two)Program"... You can google it. It will take you to a website about the place where they train and they can send you their promotional videos and some testimonials. It looks like a good program, if you can afford it and if you can get to Massachussetts!!!!

A Music Therapist's picture

Anyone in the general

Anyone in the general population can contact the American Music Therapy Association to get the name of board certified music therapists in your area. They will even look for therapists who treat children with autism. You can also request a music therapy assessment at an IEP meeting if its believed that music therapy would assist the child in his education.
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