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How Music Therapy May Help Children with Autism


— January 19, 2021

Music is an important part of life. It may be an even more important and a far more valuable tool when it comes to the management of autism.


Thanks to the research, we now have a better understanding of the brain mechanisms that are involved in autism. This enables us to devise better diagnostic tools and opportunities for early interventions. Yet, the available behavioral and pharmacological interventions are only able to diminish the disruptive behaviors of autism. They don’t modify the underlying process itself.

On top of that, there’s always a concern about the possible side-effects of the medications used for treating autism. Additionally, we are yet to find the medication that can successfully alter the neurodevelopmental abnormalities in autistic children (not just manage the behavioral symptoms).

Hence the growing interest in alternative and complementary medicine to discover new therapies. One such therapy is – MUSIC.

Understanding Autism

Evidence by Cochrane Collaboration shows that music therapy and music lessons may improve core functions involved in autism: verbal communication, social interaction, initiating social-emotional and behavioral reciprocity. 

Studies show us that, in an autistic brain, there’s an alternation of brain connectivity. Autistic patients often exhibit increased attention to or discrimination against simple stimuli. It could be a fixation on certain numbers, colors, tones, and objects. 

There’s also an impairment in successfully integrating sensory stimuli into a complex gestalt perceptual representation. This means the person is unable to synthesize multiple sensory inputs which lead to difficulty forming the complex cognitive representations and metaphors for symbolic abstraction. As a result, autistic people have a hard time reading body language, understanding nuances of the language, and responding to social cues.

Why is Music Therapy Good for Autistic Children?

Child and teacher; image provided by author.
Child and teacher; image provided by author.

Music, as a therapy, has the potential to alter the structure as well as functional connectivity between various regions of the cerebral cortex. This allows for multisensory integration across subcortical and cortical domains during the early development stages. Therefore, autistic patients, when exposed to music, show better cortical activation which is not as active in an autistic brain. This aberration in cortical activation is thought to be a major underlying cause of neurophysiologic aberration in autism.

Music in autism tends to activate the mirror neuron system (which is responsible for communication, imagination, and empathy). This may improve the ability of autistic people to better connect with and understand social cues and emotions. 

A 2009 study utilized music intervention in autism. It was observed that nonverbal children were able to speak after undergoing music therapy. There’s now a growing body of evidence that reflects on the music’s ability to heal communicative defects. Other than the neuromodulatory effects, music also shows neuroplastic effects. It can alter the functional activities as well as the physical structure of the brain across certain cortical areas. 

It is, therefore, apparent that music holds a big role in normalizing the neurophysiological abnormalities. It also holds great potential in significantly improving the neurological and behavioral symptoms of autism.

What is Involved in Music Therapy for Autistic Children?

In a typical music therapy for autism, there are supposed to be four stages –

  1. Assessment – In this phase, the therapist will usually assess the child to ascertain the symptoms. Since music therapy is used in combination with other traditional therapies (and not just as a standalone treatment), the therapist usually works in collaboration with the child’s doctor as well as other therapists to know more about the child’s background before devising a treatment plan.
  2. Goal Setting – The second phase involves laying out a detailed and customized program per the child’s unique requirements. 
  3. Activity Planning – As obvious, in this phase, the therapist will work on designing and laying out different music activities suitable for the child. Typical activities include dancing to music, acting on musical cues, songwriting, singing, listening to music, playing instruments, and improvising as part of a group.
  4. Evaluation – In this phase, the therapist will conduct regular and multiple assessments to evaluate how well the child is responding to music therapy. As part of the evaluation, the therapist may also introduce certain changes in the program he/she deems necessary for a more effective treatment. 

Benefits of Music Therapy Work for People with Autism:

Assists in Social Interaction Development

Working on the social aspect is a huge part of treating autistic children. Music seems to be effective in that aspect. During general music and therapy sessions, autistic children tend to show a greater array of emotional expressions and a better socially engaged behavior when compared to sessions without music. Incorporating things like sharing instruments, playing games, and working in collaboration with other kids can be excellent in working on the social goals of children with autism.

Aids Sensory Development

The process of listening to and making music engages all sensory organs including touching, watching, listening, and other fine motor skills. Therefore, music therapy is highly effective in enhancing the sensory-motor, perceptual-motor, fine/gross motor skills as well as auditory processing.

Helps Reduce Anxiety

Children with ASD tend to have higher levels of anxiety than the general population because of the altered way in which they experience stimuli. We find that regular therapeutic exposure to music (particularly soothing classical music) can significantly put that anxiety to ease.

Bottom Line

Music is an important part of life. It may be an even more important and a far more valuable tool when it comes to the management of autism. Even if the clinical outcomes may not be apparent, autistic children can benefit from the musical experiences in myriad ways. Music therapy can have an enriching and positive effect, not only on the mood but the overall well-being of autistic children.

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