Music Therapy for Autistic Children

A music therapist and her pupil drum together

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Music therapy is a well-established and risk-free technique for using musical interaction to help individuals with a wide range of cognitive and emotional challenges to improve their ability to function. By interacting with adults and children on the autism spectrum, musical therapists can build skills, lower anxiety, and even develop new communication skills.

It's important to note that music therapy is not the same as musical instruction. If your aim is to have your child build vocal or instrumental skills, you'll need to find an instructor instead of or in addition to a music therapist.

Why Music Therapy Might Be a Good Choice for Your Child

Music therapy can help people with autism to improve skills in areas such as communication, social skills, sensory issues, behavior, cognition, perceptual/motor skills, and self-reliance or self-determination. The therapist finds music experiences that strike a chord with a particular person, making personal connections and building trust.

According to a meta-study that looked at outcomes, "Reported benefits included, but were not limited to increased appropriate social behavior; increased attention to task; increased vocalization, verbalization, gesture, and vocabulary comprehension; increased communication and social skills; enhanced body awareness and coordination; improved self-care skills; and reduced anxiety." Another study suggests that family-centered music therapy can build stronger parent-child bonds. 

People on the autism spectrum are often especially interested in and responsive to music. Because music is motivating and engaging, it may be used as a natural "reinforcer" for desired responses. Music therapy can also help those with sensory aversions to certain sounds to cope with sound sensitivities or individual differences in auditory processing.

If your child already seems to enjoy and respond to music, it may be worth your while to look into music therapy providers. 

What Does a Music Therapist Do for People with Autism?

After assessing the strengths and needs of each person, music therapists develop a treatment plan with goals and objectives and then provide appropriate treatment. Music therapists work with both individuals and in small groups, using a variety of music and techniques. According to the National Autistic Society, music therapists:

  • may rely on spontaneous musical improvisation. The therapist uses percussion or tuned instruments, or her own voice, to respond creatively to the sounds produced by the client and encourage the client to create his or her own musical language. The aim is to create a context of sound in which the client feels comfortable and confident to express himself, to experience a wider range of emotions, and to discover what it is like to be in a two-way communicating relationship.
  • use simple songs, pieces or musical styles to suit the mood and clinical and developmental needs of the client at any given moment. In fact, music as therapy need not fall into conventional patterns or even use words; the music therapist can respond to cries, screams and body movements by the client, all of which have rhythm and pitch and are susceptible to an organization in musical terms.

A good music therapist should be able to develop strategies that can be implemented at home or at school.

How to Find a Board Certified Music Therapist

Music therapists must earn a bachelor's degree or higher in music therapy from an American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) approved college and university program; complete a minimum of 1,200 hours of clinical training; and pass a national examination administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) to obtain the credential required for professional practice, Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC).

Some music therapists work in school settings as a related service on a child's Individual Education Plan (IEP), either hired or contracted by a school district. Others have private practices or work for agencies that specialize in treatment for individuals with developmental disabilities. Some states fund music therapy services through Medicaid Waivers or other state programs. Private health insurance reimbursement usually requires pre-approval on a case-by-case basis.

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Article Sources

  • Geretsegger M, Elefant C, Mössler KA, Gold C. Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD004381. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004381.pub3.
  • Potheini Vaiouli, Georgia Andreou, Communication and Language Development of Young Children With Autism: A Review of Research in Music, Communication Disorders Quarterly, 2017, 152574011770511
  • Thompson, G. A., McFerran, K. S. and Gold, C. (2014), Family-centred music therapy to promote social engagement in young children with severe autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled study. Child Care Health Dev, 40: 840–852. doi:10.1111/cch.12121