Music Therapy + Neurodiversity How Sound Offers Support

Everything You Need to Know About Music Therapy For Gifted, Autistic, and ADHD Individuals

While it might sound like fancy medical jargon, the term “neurodiversity” is actually a non-medical umbrella term that is meant to cover anybody whose brain works differently from the average person’s. And while it might be most quickly associated with individuals who are on the Autism Disorder Spectrum, it also includes anybody who suffers from ADD or ADHD, or any other type of learning disability like dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysphasia, or dyscalculic and people categorized as "gifted" as well.

And when I say it is a non-medical term I really mean that. The term “neurodivergent” emerged out of a movement in the 1990s to be more accepting and inclusive of all people, even those who are neurologically a little different. Instead of ostracizing people for being different, the movement aims to celebrate our differences and find strength in people of different neurological makeups working together and bringing different perspectives and thought processes to a project.

But like any type of medical condition, being neurodivergent comes with its own sets of challenges and obstacles. But there is good news if you or somebody you love qualifies as neurodivergent because music therapy has been shown to be a particularly effective treatment to help manage the symptoms of neurodiversity that make it harder to go through life.

Check out the post below to find just how exactly music therapy can support everybody who qualifies as neurodivergent.

two neurodivergent individuals sharing music at a park bench
Music therapy can be a great way to help neurodivergent people work on their communication skills!

What Is Music Therapy?

How Long Has Music Therapy Been Used As A Form of Medicine?

One of the important thighs to explain right off the back is that music therapy is not the same thing as music lessons. Music lessons involve a teacher coming over and teaching another person how to play an instrument and understand music theory. Whereas music therapy involves licensed therapists who consult with their patient to come up with a customized treatment plan to help address the patient’s most pressing needs. Then they use a variety of different music and different techniques to achieve real credible medical results for their patients.

And although it’s a fairly modern form of therapy, the history between music and medicine dates all the way back to ancient Greece. And during the World Wars it was not at all uncommon for hospitals to have musicians come play for those who were injured on the battlefield. But it’s really only been over the last 20 years or so that the research has been done to back up what a lot of medical professionals had suspected for a long time. That music has a demonstrable effect on the body’s healing process.

And in the time that serious research has been being done on music therapy, it has been proven to be an effective form of treatment for countless numbers of people. Research shows that music therapy has real medical benefits for people with dementia, brain injuries, strokes, Parkinsons, cancer, Autism Spectrum Disorder, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, learning and developmental disabilities, and acute and chronic pain.

So as you can see, music therapy has quickly been proving itself to be a legitimate and effective form of treatment for a wide variety of different patients. But what about those patients with neurodiversity? How exactly does music therapy help them?

graphic showing brains and neurons and cell phones
Neurodivergent people understand the world a little bit differently than everybody else because their brain is structured slightly differently.

How Music Therapy Can Help Those Who Are Neurodivergent

How Music Therapy Supports Those With Autism

Music therapists are trained to be able to develop a unique treatment plan for each individual patient. And this is especially important when using music therapy to treat neurodiversity like autism. Individuals with autism often have a difficult time communicating what they need or want and just generally might struggle with interacting with other people. And this is where the music therapist's training can really come into play. Music has shown an ability to help those with autism form a human connection with others and even improve their ability to communicate.

One of the things that makes music therapy different from other forms of therapy is that it is not just one side listening to the other side talk. No. In music therapy both participants can be playing music together. And although autistic individuals might have a hard time feeling genuinely connected with other people, the process of playing music with another person seems to generally help them feel like they’ve built a connection.

And as somebody who has been playing music for 20 some odd years, I can tell you that there is definitely something to that. After you’ve played music with a person you just know them in a way that you never knew them before, and you form this weird bond that only happens when you play music together. So I think music’s natural ability to bond people together plays a large role in helping neurodivergent people with autism more easily form a human connection.

In addition, music therapy can be designed to activate the parts of the brain that control sensory and auditory functions. And since many people with autism suffer from sensory processing and integration, they are oftentimes feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload. So a music therapy program that is designed to improve their sensory processing can go a long way in helping those who are neurodivergent feel more relaxed and less overwhelmed more of the time. And since they won’t be overwhelmed so much of the time, they will have a much easier time communicating with others and forming human connections. Music therapy can help them address their social skills and help them form meaningful relationships with others.

ADHD text graphic
ADHD is another very common type of neurodivergence that music therapy can lend support to!

Other Neurodivergent People That Music Therapy Can Support

How Music Therapy Supports Those With ADHD

And for those of you who are ADD or ADHD neurodivergent instead of autistic neurodivergent, don’t worry. Music therapy has plenty of benefits to offer for you as well. Music therapy can help be used to bolster your attention and focus, it reduces hyperactivity in the brain, and even helps strengthen social skills.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most prominent forms of neurodivergence in the country. The defining features of ADHD involve inattention/attention-deficit, hyperactivity/overactivity, and impulsivity. Music therapy has proven to be a potentially highly effective treat that addresses the core symptoms of ADHD

Basically what happens for a person with ADHD is that their mind is always moving around at record speeds because their mind has lower levels of dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, focus, attention, and working memory) which causes them to be unable to keep their mind on track. And having all these excessive thoughts bouncing around your head all of the time can make it quite hard to focus on the task at hand. Music helps address these problems head on.

Not only does music stimulate the part of your brain that produces dopamine, i.e., it causes an ADHD brain to make more of the ingredient that it never has enough of. So just by getting your brain to produce more dopamine, you will just technically be able to focus and remember things better. But on top of the literal neurochemical way that music therapy helps with ADHD, the artform of music itself is also very good for the ADHD neurodivergent brain.

And that is because where an ADHD lacks structure and really needs it, music itself is a very strictly structured artform. The song is set to a set tempo. The song has a certain number of bars. The bars have a set number of beats to them. The song has a strict structure of verses and choruses. Every song has a clear beginning, middle, and end and this makes them predictable. While the specific structures to the beats and rhythms are also highly organized. All of the hyper organization that goes into a song works really well for teaching a brain with ADHD how to focus and pay attention. And an ADHD brain will naturally gravitate towards music because it desperately craves the structure that it lacks.

happy neurodivergent man balancing fidget spinners on his thumbs
Music therapy offers support for neurodivergent people of all sorts!

In Conclusion; Music Offers Support for Neurodiversity In A Variety of Ways

Music is such an incredible artform that it is continually proving that it can even be used in medicine. And the research so far shows it to be a particularly effective tool in helping those who are neurodivergent deal with some of the strife and turmoil that come with having a brain that operates differently from everybody else’s. So whether you yourself are neurodivergent, or you just love somebody who is neurodivergent, I hope you have a whole new perspective on how music therapy can be a particularly powerful tool in treating the symptoms of neurodiversity

Anthony Stockton
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