Everything You Need to Know About Music Therapy and Autism

Refining life through the gift of music

The therapist and client are using a drum to help the client communicate. This helps her work through her emotions in a healthy way.

Approximately one in sixty-eight Americans suffer from a neurodevelopmental disorder known as Autism Spectrum Disorder. This means that if a classroom has an average of 23 kids, approximately one in three classrooms will have a student diagnosed with Autism. Autism is a spectrum where individuals have different combinations and levels of needs. Each individual has a different variety of strengths and areas of need. There are many ways to strengthen the skills that individuals with autism struggle with, but Music therapy is one of the best ways to do so. Music Therapy is able to provide an adaptive and individualized approach that is unique to each individual that is treated.

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or better known as Autism, is an intellectual disability. It affects the fine and gross motor skills, speech and language development and sensory integration. According to Damar Services, Autism manifests in four main ways:

  • Limitations in social skills
  • Challenges to sensory integration
  • Language and communication problems
  • Atypical behaviors

There is no one cause of Autism. Scientists believe Autism can be a result of genetics or their environments, but there are also other factors we may not know about yet. Some early indicators that a child has Autism are:

  • No babbling or pointing by age 1
  • No single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
  • No response to name
  • Loss of language or social skills previously acquired
  • Poor eye contact
  • Excessive lining up of toys or objects
  • No smiling or social responsiveness

Later signs of Autism are:

  • Limited ability to make friends
  • Limited ability to initiate or sustain conversation with others
  • Absence or impairment of imaginative or social play
  • Repetitive or unusual use of language
  • Abnormally intense or focused interest
  • Preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
  • Inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals

The boy learns how to play piano which helps him express how he feels when he has trouble using his words.

How Can Music Therapy Help Autism?

Music is the biggest example of self-expression. It can make us feel emotional and take us to places beyond our wildest imagination. I know for myself, it pumps me up when I’m getting ready for a run. Everyone that enjoys it has their own sense of musical stylings. Music helps to strengthen the multi-sensory stimulation often found absent in people with autism. 

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a scientifically proven way for therapists to intervene with their clients and connect with them on an emotional level. It’s a way for individuals who struggle to communicate to better express their emotions. Music therapy is a way for those particular individuals to feel emotional support and amend their disabilities. 

Why Music Therapy?

Human bodies physiologically respond to music. It can flow through our emotions and bring back memories we didn’t remember that we had. Everyone, including children and infants, respond to music in a positive way which increases our learning abilities. It plays an important role in our brains and our brains enjoy it.

Music flows through both hemispheres of the human brain. Because of this, music has the capability of restoring cognitive functioning. It's used for fixing speech and language skills in people with autism. Communication, social skills, and sensory issues increase with the help of music.

People with autism should consider music therapy because of the positive results seen. Music helps individuals with autism express their emotions better. This leads to the enhancement of fine and gross motor skills. It also makes clients feel more comfortable in their environment.

What is a Music Therapist?

Music therapists accommodate their client’s specific needs. To help clients, therapists must first determine where they fall on the spectrum. Their years of training and schooling allow them to test the level of their client’s autism. They can guesstimate the best way to boost their clients fine and motor skills.

Therapists choose the music for treatment. Based on the client's preferences, they choose either singing, creating, dancing, or listening. They also create unique plans for each one of their clients to stabilize a bond. The client then feels more comfortable with their therapist.

Music therapists can also collaborate with parents or caretakers. Many allow them to sit in on sessions to brainstorm ideas that they think might help their loved one or child.

The mom and her daughter play piano together to stimulate the baby's sensory skills. In the future, it will help the baby have an easier time communicating with others.

Is There Proof That It Works?

Twenty-five children with autism between the ages of six and twelve were judged in a controlled trial conducted by Sharda et al. The trial was to see if social and communication skills had improved or altered the brain activity. The kids were divided into two groups. One received the music therapy and one did not receive the music therapy. Sharda had concluded that there was a difference in the children’s brain activity levels.

The group that received the musical therapy was stimulated by musical instruments, songs, and rhythmic cues. The group that received no musical therapy was stimulated by play-based activities. The play-based activities matched to the musical therapy intelligence levels.

Some theories say that certain areas of the brain are overly connected in Autism. Others suggest that there is not enough connection between the areas.

Results of the Trial

After the eight to twelve week trial period, the results came in. The music therapy group increased in parent-reported language. They also increased in social relationships and family quality of life. The group not exposed to music did not see any increased results.

Found in people with autism, functional connectivity between auditory and visual areas is less clear. The musical therapy group’s functional connectivity soared compared to the nonmusical group. Their communication and social responsiveness levels were higher than the nonmusical therapy group. But, their auditory and visual processing areas decreased in comparison.

Large behavioral improvements in response intervention showed in children whose brain connection increased. Social communication skills correlated higher in the children that decreased brain connection.

This study shows that music therapy does strengthen connections between brain areas. It is important because the connections correlate within behavioral improvements in social communication.


All in All

Music therapy has been proven to help those with Autism, no matter where they are on the spectrum. Contact Incadence if you or someone you know has a form of Autism, and is looking to give music therapy a try. We look forward to hearing from you.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 17, 2021

Samantha Damico
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