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January 29, 2021

Music Therapy for Autism

Although no cure exists for autism spectrum disorder, there are various types of therapies that can be utilized to manage certain behaviors and symptoms associated with the disorder.

Music therapy is one of these types of therapies. A well-established and risk-free technique, music therapy utilizes musical interaction. Through it, individuals improve their ability to function by overcoming a wide range of cognitive and emotional challenges.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a form of therapy that uses interactive musical activities . These music therapy techniques improve social and communication skills for anyone at any age and of any skill level.

When taken a look at the history of music therapy, we can see that in the early 1900s, it was first used in the United States for children with additional needs. Later on in the 50s and 60s, the therapy was started to be used often in the United Kingdom.

Music therapy for children with autism was developed to allow them to overcome the challenges in social interaction and communication they face in life. Music therapy can also be beneficial in terms of sensory issues, cognition, and motor skills.

By improving certain skills in many areas, music therapy allows for the individual with autism to become self-reliant and self-determined.

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How Does Music Therapy Work?

Music therapy is practiced by registered and experienced music therapists. A registered music therapist completes an accredited training program to be qualified. They can work at schools or early intervention centers.

Depending on the country, music therapists can be accredited or certified by certain associations. In the United States, they should get their bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy from colleges and university programs approved by the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).

Music therapists can work in school settings. They can be involved in the child’s Individual Education Plan. Some can work at or have their own private practices. Many music therapists work with specific groups of people. This means that they may not have experience in working with autistic people or people with special needs. Thus, it is important to find the most suitable therapist for the person’s individual needs.

During music therapies, music therapists implement certain steps and use musical activities to teach individuals with autism new skills. This is achieved by matching new skills with their own musical cues.

After the child has learned the skills, they will no longer need the cues given by the therapist. The therapist will gradually phase out the cues until the skills are achieved by themselves.

There are certain steps followed by the music therapist during sessions, namely the assessment, goal-setting, activities, and evaluation.

music therapy for autism

The therapist assesses the child in order to figure out what their needs are. As music therapy is almost always implemented with other autism therapies, the music therapist can also consult the parents or caregivers as well as the child’s pediatrician.

Once the assessment of strengths and needs is completed, the therapist will likely develop a treatment plan that will include the goals and objectives. This will be an individualized plan, shaped based on and developed in consideration of the child’s needs.

During music therapy sessions, the therapist will introduce music therapy activities that will aim the child’s specific needs determined early on. There are various types of activities used in music therapy, such as writing songs, singing along, playing or listening to instruments, working in groups and many more.

Generally, these strategies and activities are designed in a way that they can be implemented in more than one setting, like at home or at school, so that the sessions can be continuous.

The music therapists will be evaluating the music therapy program on a regular basis to make sure that it is working well or should any adjustments be made, they can make it to stick to the plan to help the individual achieve their goals.

It has been proven by research that music therapy can help autistic children improve certain core skills. Children can adopt and improve abilities that can help in their daily lives. Although more research is still needed on the topic, children with autism and those with intellectual disabilities can benefit more from music therapy compared to the typically developing children.

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What is Music Therapy Used for?

Benefits of music therapy can be seen on a myriad of levels in a person’s life. It provided a communication and interaction channel for those who can’t easily communicate.

Children with autism working with a music therapist can learn skills and behaviors through the use of music. A music therapist could write lyrics about specific behavior that the child is struggling with, such as the morning routine. The therapist then can sing the lyrics to the melody of a song the child knows well. This helps the child to be able to focus on sung information than spoken information, with which they may have issues.

All of the carefully planned activities promote communication and social skills. Music therapy can help the child with autism gain these skills like taking turns, sharing attention or making eye contact, which then greatly improves their quality of life.

A study has looked at the outcomes of music therapy, finding that there have been improvements with appropriate social behavior . Also among the gains were increase in attention to task, increased verbalization, gesture and vocabulary comprehension. Music therapy was also found to improve self-care skills and reduce anxiety.

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It is found that music therapy that is family-centered can build stronger parent-child bonds . A Journal of Music Therapy article on the effects of a music therapy on the quality of life in a family setting found that mothers perceived long-term benefits in terms of social relationships in the family and increased family quality of life after music therapy sessions.

People with autism spectrum disorder are often interested in music. They respond to it well. Music is motivating and engaging, it is fun. It can be used as a natural reinforcer to achieve desired responses.

Music therapy can also be utilized to help people with sensory issues regarding certain sounds. The therapy can help them cope with or overcome sound sensitivities or differences in auditory processing.

Children with autism tend to have self-stimulatory behaviors, and music therapy can stimulate these individuals. This could decrease negative or self-stimulatory responses, while also increasing more appropriate and socially acceptable participation in life.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty in identifying and expressing their emotions . Music therapy can be a great tool to stimulate cognitive functioning, as music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain. It can be used to alleviate some speech and language issues.


This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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This post does not provide medical advice. See Additional Information.