Autism and Music Therapy

For some children with autism, human contact is threatening, but when music becomes a part of the communication process, children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder often begin to relax, focus, and improve in ways that parents, clinicians, and the children themselves find astonishing.

The dramatic improvements in autistic children who receive music therapy has instigated numerous research studies over the past several years, studies that have helped musical therapists develop effective musical interventions and techniques. These advancements have increased the demand for music therapy programs targeting autistic individuals, increasing exposure to this type of treatment in schools, community organizations, and in private practice.

What are Autistic Spectrum Disorders?

Autistic disorders are neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by social and communication problems, and restricted interests and behaviors. Because these disorders range in severity, and the problems exhibited by autistic children are highly individualized, the disorders are diagnosed along a spectrum – from low functioning to high functioning individuals.

How does Music Therapy Help?

Music therapy has been shown to be effective in treating autism in two key areas:

  • Improving communication and language skills
  • Improving socio-behavioral skills

Improving Communication and Language Skills

For reasons still not clearly known, the neural pathways of individuals with autism prevent them from understanding and processing human speech. The tonal and pitch variations in speech go undetected, also causing a barrier in detecting emotions, such as happiness and sadness. In addition, autistic individuals can’t interpret the facial and body language cues that accompany expressions of differing emotional states.

But the brain processes music in a much different way than language. Whereas an autistic individual cannot process emotional content through spoken words, they do process emotions through music, such as melodies and tones depicting sadness, and those signaling more upbeat, happy emotions. Scientists continue to investigate why this occurs, but many recent studies point to music’s regularity and reliability of rhythms, tones, and pitches.

For instance, a drum beat played over and over in the same rhythm presents a certain regularity that speech doesn’t employ. Music therapists use these musical rhythms as aides for learning and memory in autism. Many autistic children are able to learn words easier when they are sung rather than spoken, for example.

Music therapists use singing musical games to encourage speech and vocalizations, as well as musical instruments to strengthen the use of the lips, tongues, jaws and teeth. In fact, it’s only through music therapy that many autistic children learn to speak and talk at all.

Learning to talk with music therapy

A 2009 article in The New Jersey Star Ledger, “Using the Language of Music to Speak to Children With Autism,” recounted the story of a 4-year-old autistic boy who came to music therapy unable to speak, only pointing at objects to express himself. Several months later, the boy had started using words.

Writer Julie Cirelli-Heurich explained how this nonverbal child progressed from making absolutely no sounds to being able to speak as a result of music therapy. She wrote:

The music therapist ended all group therapy sessions by singing “Happy Trails,” instructing all nonverbal children to use their tongues to make clucking sounds like horse’s hooves. The boy learned the clucking sound, and then began using it to indicate to the therapist that he wanted to sing the song. This clucking sound was the first type of “speech” sound he had ever used to indicate a need or want.

After several months of music therapy, the boy asked to sing another song by using the four words “one, two, three, ball game” – words of another favorite song he had learned.

Teaching this young boy to speak through music therapy was an accomplishment that other more conventional therapies couldn’t replicate.

Improving Socio-Behavioral Skills

The book Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr emphasizes the communal and collective properties of music to bring people together – as apparent in cultures all over the world that ritualize singing, dancing, and playing instruments.

The communal aspect of music combined with its regular rhythms and melodies provides a powerful behavioral intervention for autistic children, who tend to escape into themselves, staying withdrawn and isolated.

A trained therapist knows how to draw the withdrawn child first to the instrument, or music, then bridges that connection to the therapist, and the instrument that the therapist plays. Finally, the child connects to other therapy patients and parents. This can take several sessions before the child shows progress. Once bonding with the therapist and others takes place, the therapist then has the opportunity to begin teaching appropriate social skills.

Socially autistic individuals struggle, but social delays experience some of the most effective outcomes with music therapy interventions.

The article, “Why Does Music Therapy Help in Autism?” published in Empirical Musicology Review stated that introducing a musical “entrainment” intervention for an autistic girl improved her erratic classroom behaviors. In music, entrainment – a process where two rhythmic processes interact and sync together – means brain waves interacting with musical sound waves, matching each others’ frequencies.

So in this case, author Neha Khetraphal of the University of Bielefeld, Germany, said that by using relaxing rhythms, the girl was able to entrain with the rhythms, relax and slow herself down, decreasing her acting out and problematic behaviors.

A powerful intervention only applied by music therapists

Music is powerful, according to noted author and physician Oliver Sacks. It can become irresistible and perhaps coercive, stated Sacks, also professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. In an article for the journal Brain, Sacks said that an example of the coercive power of music is exemplified at rock concerts, where thousands can be taken over, engulfed or entrained by the music. Sacks also cautions against the “overflow of music into the motor system,” which he states can go too far.

Music therapists know the power of music, appreciating its value while recognizing its potential to overwhelm and potentially cause harm – especially when working with autistic populations.

The vast degree of differences within the autistic population means that no universal rules of therapy exist, differences that can result in positive outcomes for one individual, while another can respond quite negatively. And autistic individuals are extremely sensitive to sensory overload, which can exacerbate motility – or rapid and unpredictable body movements characteristic of autism. Music itself can become an obsession, another trait of autism that reinforces withdrawal and isolation. Instead of drawing out the individual, music therapy interventions applied incorrectly can make the child move deeper inwards.

For these reasons, music therapy for autistic children and individuals should only be practiced by individuals who have completed an approved music therapy program (including an internship), and have passed the national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.

If you have a desire to help autistic individuals and children adjust to their environments by developing good communication and social skills, consider a degree in music therapy. Contact schools with degrees in music therapy for more information.

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