Can Music Make a Difference for Kids on the Autism Spectrum?

By Sanjay Shah

Millions of children and adults worldwide live on the autism spectrum — with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.

After years of heavily funded research and successful awareness-building campaigns, we know more than ever before about ASD. But we still know far too little about what causes autism and what treatments hold the most promise for those affected.

The hope is that this uncertain state of affairs will change in the years ahead.

‘If recent progress in research on the benefits of music therapy for children with autism is any indication, we could be on the cusp of a revolution in our understanding of autism spectrum disorder.’ – Sanjay Shah

If this is the first you’re hearing about the benefits of music for those on the spectrum, please read Nurse Journal’s excellent roundup on the topic.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key takeaways from recent research in this area, as well as some questions that we’d like to see answered in the coming months and years.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is ‘a well established allied health profession that uses music therapeutically to address behavioral [sic], social, psychological, communicative, physical, sensory, motor, and/or cognitive functioning,’ according to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). As ‘music therapy is a powerful and non-threatening medium, unique outcomes are possible.’

Music therapy uses music as a sort of binding agent to strengthen relationships between individuals with ASD and those around them. According to AMTA, key relationships include those between the autism-affected individual and:

  • The qualified music therapist assigned to him or her
  • Other autism-affected individuals
  • Parents and other family members
  • The music itself

The therapy leverages ‘a unique variety of music experiences in an intentional and developmentally appropriate manner to effect changes in behavior [sic] and facilitate development of skills,’ always in a positive manner — that is, assigning positive associations to the individual’s experience of the music.

Key Benefits of Music Therapy for Individuals With Autism

What are some of the top benefits of music therapy? Researchers have over the last two decades uncovered some key correlations, per Autism Science Foundation:

  • Improving focus and attention: A 2012 study (via Science Daily) found that music therapy significantly reduces the incidence of inattentive behaviours, with corresponding increases in measures of focus and attention among treated individuals. This is crucial for learning and socialisation in group settings, such as classrooms.
  • Facilitating social interaction and communication: A 2004 study found that music therapy may help strengthen linkages between the motor and auditory areas of the brain, potentially facilitating social interaction and communication among treated individuals. This is especially important for the 30% of autism-affected individuals who qualify as nonverbal.
  • Modulating disruptive behaviour: Music therapy has been shown to modulate and minimise disruptive behaviours at home and in public settings. Following music therapy sessions, more than half the 2012 study group improved on measures of inattentiveness, restlessness, and other disruptive indicators.
  • Mitigating anxiety: Music therapy can significantly reduce the anxiety felt by autism-affected individuals. An observational study conducted in 2006 found that treated individuals exhibited fewer anxiety-related behaviours in the period immediately after a music therapy session. Researchers are now working to replicate these results in larger groups.

Do Other Non-Traditional Autism Therapies Work?

Music isn’t the only non-traditional autism therapy that’s generally considered effective by the medical community. Other therapies that have gained favour in recent years include:

Sensory-based therapies (non-musical)
Animal-assisted therapies (horses, dogs, and others)
Special diets (casein- and gluten-free in particular, though there’s not yet strong scientific evidence to support these interventions)
Melatonin (a natural sleep aid that proves calming for some children with ASD)

It’s important to remember that not all widely accepted autism therapies are particularly helpful. Some are overly invasive, confer uncertain benefits, or have actually been shown to be counterproductive. And it’s best to maintain realistic expectations about any specific course of therapy. Many autism therapies, regardless of effectiveness and likelihood of tolerance, treat only some of the symptoms of the disorder — not the underlying disorder itself.

Finally, a word of caution for all. Before changing your child’s therapy regimen or introducing any new activities into his or her routine, check with his or her medical provider and therapy team to weigh the relative merits.

Bio: Sanjay Shah the founder of Autism Rocks, a charitable organisation that raises awareness about autism through charitable music events