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Music Therapy and Autism

Posted on: January 30th, 2021

In honor of Music Therapy Social Media Advocacy Month, I wanted to share some insights into how music therapy benefits children having autism.  

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder, currently affecting 1 in 68 individuals in the United States (CDC, 2014). While the causes are still unclear, the DSM-5 describes the following two cores characteristics of ASD: 1) deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, and 2) restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities.  Interventions, such as music therapy, are crucial for individuals with ASD to maximize their potential and lead fulfilled lives.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, people of all ages, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and degrees of abilities respond to aspects of music in daily life. The engaging nature and accessibility of music often elicit positive responses from individuals with ASD. 

Researchers have discussed that persons with ASD have advanced music memory, responsiveness, and aptitudes for music.  They may have more sensitivity to musical elements, yet similar skills of music perception as compared to typically developing peers.  While only a small number of individuals with ASD are musical savants, all clients can benefit from music therapy interventions (Fact_Sheet_ASD_and_MT__8-26-15.pdf (musictherapy.org).

Music therapy interventions focus on enhancing social, communicative, motor/sensory, emotional, and academic/cognitive functioning, or music skills in individuals with ASD. Music therapy services are based on each client’s individual abilities, noting preferences, needs, the family’s values, beliefs, and priorities. Music therapists work in partnership with clients, families, and teams.

Music therapy interventions are informed by research evidence and have been found to enhance or improve:

  • Communication
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Personal responsibility
  • Play
  • Joint attention 
  • Auditory processing, other sensory-motor, perceptual/motor, or gross/fine motor skills
  • Identification and appropriate expression of emotions
  • Social engagement in the home environment and community
  • Target behaviors and teach new skills

Music therapists accept referrals and provide assessments and interventions to individuals with ASD and their families in public schools, family homes, private practice settings, preschools/ daycares, music therapy agencies, early intervention programs, treatment centers, support groups, hospitals, and various venues within the community. The role of the music therapist may be as a provider of direct services (i.e., via individual and group sessions), as a coach to parents, or as a consultant to family members/caregivers, educators, or team members (Kern et al., 2013).

Music therapy is an evidence-based health profession and is recognized as a related service under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Therefore, preschool, youth, and young adults may be eligible for music therapy services under the IDEA Part B. Services also may be funded by states, foundations, or community grants. Many music therapists also accept private payments.

For more information on Music Therapy see my Blog#3: Music Therapy and Counseling or contact me at SHCS.