Children with autism are often interested in and emotionally responsive to music. Music provides powerful multi-sensory experiences that can help them develop verbal and social skills, in addition to creating ample opportunities to relate to others.
Let’s take a closer look at how music therapy is used to treat children with autism spectrum disorder.
What Is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is a clinical, evidence-based technique for using musical interactions to help improve functioning skills in children and adults with cognitive and emotional difficulties.
Music therapy was first used for the clinical treatment of children with special needs in the early to mid-1900s. It was originally developed as a way to help children improve social interaction and communication. Today, music therapy addresses both the communication, social, physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of children on the autism spectrum.
Music therapy is not to be confused with musical instruction. It is not a performance-based but rather a process-oriented intervention, where children actively participate in activities such as singing, moving along with, listening to and creating music.
This type of therapy is offered by Board Certified Music Therapists (MT-BC) who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher from an American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) approved college or university program. In addition, to obtain the credentials required for professional practice, candidates have to pass a national examination administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT).
Is Music Therapy Effective for Children With Autism?
Research shows that various aspects of music such as melody, pitch, and rhythm are all processed by different areas in the brain. Since music stimulates both hemispheres of the brain, it can be effective in improving cognitive functioning in a child with autism. Several studies have also shown that music therapy works to rewire the brains of children with autism, helping them to reduce undesirable behaviors and improve social interactions with family and friends.
The benefits of music therapy for autistic children
There are several ways in which music therapy is proven to be beneficial to children with autism spectrum disorder.
Most autistic children experience challenges with at least some aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication. For children who have very limited verbal skills or who find it difficult to express themselves using words, music therapy can provide a valuable alternative means of communication.
Motivate social interactions
Research shows that children with autism become more socially engaged when they are exposed to music therapy. During their therapy sessions, autistic children display a wider range of emotional expressions and social engagement behaviors than in classroom settings and other environments where there is no music involved.
What’s more, many group therapy sessions include playing games, sharing instruments, and creating together. This type of intervention is a great practice for children with autism as it promotes social skills like making eye contact, sharing attention, and taking turns.
Increase attention to tasks
Weekly music therapy sessions for autism can improve the ability to focus and help reduce restlessness and aggressive behaviors. Interestingly, autistic children often find it easier to focus on sung information than the one that is spoken.
Teach new skills
Music may be used as a natural reinforcer for obtaining desired responses in autistic children. A therapist can teach new skills through musical activities, for example, pairing those skills with musical cues. The cues are gradually phased out until the child has fully acquired the skill and does not need any further reinforcements.
Improve confidence levels
Music therapy fosters a sense of achievement and, consequently, the development of self-confidence and self-determination in autistic children.
Listening to and creating music as part of therapy can also help autistic children to:
- Increase vocalization and verbalization
- Enhance auditory processing
- Facilitate vocabulary comprehension
- Help develop sensory-motor and perceptual-motor skills
- Positively influence the development of gross and fine motor skills
- Enhance body awareness and coordination
- Reduce sensory aversions
- Decrease anxiety and stress
- Help identify and appropriately express emotions
- Establish stronger family bonds.
What Will a Music Therapy Session Look Like?
Music therapy sessions are delivered by certified music therapists who work with individuals or small groups in a safe environment, using a variety of music genres and techniques. Therapists will usually consult and collaborate with your child’s pediatrician or other therapists. In addition, they will develop strategies that you can successfully implement at home.
Music therapy typically involves the following stages:
- Assessment. The therapist assesses your child to determine his or her specific needs.
- Goal-setting. Based on the initial assessment, the therapist develops an individualized music therapy program for your child.
- Activities. Music therapy sessions may include activities such as songwriting, movement, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, working in groups, and improvisation. The therapist will either choose a couple of tasks as part of the treatment plan or implement various approaches across different therapy sessions.
- Evaluation. The music therapy program is regularly evaluated to make sure it is working as intended and that your child is making progress.
The duration of the therapy will depend on your child’s individual needs. You can expect to have one weekly session of music therapy that lasts for anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes.
Music therapy for autistic children is often incorporated into other forms of treatment such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy.
Encouraging Your Autistic Child Through Music Therapy
There are many different ways in which you can motivate your autistic child with the help of music therapy programs and activities. Here are just a few:
Build social skills
You can ask your child to share or pass you a musical instrument as a way to increase interaction with others. Another way to encourage interaction is to sing or play instruments together.
One of the simplest ways to help your child with autism improve communication skills is through music. You can, for instance, engage your child in a musical conversation where you sing a question and your child responds by singing.
Enhance memory and focus
A fun way to improve your child’s memory and focus is clapping to the beat of the music and asking your child to imitate your gestures. You may want to start with a simple pattern and then gradually increase its complexity.
An effective way to help your child learn new words and develop vocabulary is to select a simple song that focuses on one topic, such as animals, for example. While singing the song, make sure to emphasize the particular words you want your child to learn.
Music Therapy Program for Autistic Children in Atlanta
When looking for music therapy for your child, it is essential to find a professional who will take into consideration your child’s unique needs and interests, focus on providing a positive learning experience, and effectively communicate with you throughout the process.
If you live in the Atlanta area, you may want to consider one of the following top-rated music therapy programs for autistic children:
- Atlanta Music Therapy
- Metro Music Makers
- Metro Music Therapy
- Music Therapy for Autism
- Music Together Metro Atlanta
- Rhythm and Therapy
Other useful resources:
- American Music Therapy Association
- Learning Disability Association of Georgia
- Autism Speaks Music Therapy Finder
- Music Therapy Autism Activity Ideas.