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Music Therapy for Children and Adolescents with Autism

By Marie Oser, Managing Editor
November 1, 2010
File under: Alternative Therapies

Music Therapy has been shown to have a significant positive influence on the behavior of individuals with autism. This controlled music experience is used in combination with other therapies by music therapists who believe that music acts on three levels, cognitive, neurological and emotional.

Individuals with autism tend to ignore and reject attempts at social contact. Music is a nonverbal form of communication and music therapy can help to circumvent this process and prevent social withdrawal by first establishing a relationship with an object, the musical instrument.

Music therapists believe that by participating in music therapy individuals with autism are able to experience non-threatening outside stimulation. This is possible because they are not engaged in direct human contact.

Typically a child with autism will be fascinated by the shape, feel and sound of the instrument and not threatened by it.  In this way, the musical instrument provides an initial point of contact between the patient and the other individual by acting as an intermediary.

Each session is planned and evaluated according to the individual needs of the client, which can include:

·      Listening to music
·      Playing musical instruments
·      Moving to music
·      Singing

Most music therapists bring spontaneous musical improvisation into play. Instruments are selected that are non-threatening to the patient. Typically, the therapist will introduce percussion or another tuned instrument and encourage the patient to create his or her own musical language.

This type of therapy has been shown to aid verbal and non-verbal communication and improve vocalization of speech, comprehension and conceptualization.1

Music therapists work to establish a communicative relationship between a specific sound and the behavior of a child with autism who may have an easier time recognizing these sounds than they would a direct verbal approach. This musical awareness can establish a relationship between the actions and the music, which promotes communication.

Encouraging the autistic child to play a wind instrument, such as a flute is another form of music therapy that may foster communication skills. It is thought that playing this type of instrument heightens awareness of the jaw, teeth, lips and tongue.  Playing a wind instrument almost mirrors the functioning required in order to produce speech vocalization.

Music therapy provides the patient with an environment that is free of threatening stimuli. These sessions provide an opportunity to make noise, bang instruments, shout and feel emotional satisfaction.

Research studies have shown that employing music therapy to treat autism can stimulate and develop more meaningful and playful communication.  A meta-analysis (statistical method combining the results of independent studies) of nine studies in 2004 found that music intervention, regardless of purpose or implementation was effective for children and adolescents with autism.2 Musical therapy helps individuals with autism by:

  • Teaching social skills
  • Encouraging communication
  • Improving language comprehension
  • Developing creative-self expression
  • Lessening non-communicative speech
  • Reducing tendency of echolalia (instant repetition of another’s words)

Marie Oser is a best-selling author, writer/producer and host of VegTV, Follow Marie on Facebook and Twitter

More from ecomii:


1. Silverman, M., Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, Volume 3, Issue 1, p.3-19 (2008)
2. Whipple J Music in Intervention for Children and Adolescents with Autism: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Music Therapy: Vol. 41, No. 2 pp. 90–106 (2004)


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