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How Music Therapy for Autism Can Help Your Child on the Spectrum

September 14, 2023

Music makes this world a better place, but it can do more than make you dance and sing your worries away. In recent years, music therapy for autism has proved to be a powerful tool for enhancing the development of children on the spectrum.

Learning can and should be fun, and it’s exactly what your little one deserves. As a caregiver, you know how challenging it can be to understand your child’s needs. Once you do, however, it’s the most rewarding experience in the world. Let’s learn how music therapy can help you achieve that.

How Music Therapy for Autism Can Help Your Child on the Spectrum

What is Music Therapy for Autism?

Music therapy focuses on improving the expressiveness of inner emotional experiences and helping with body awareness. With its strong impact on emotions, it has been suggested that music, applied as music therapy, can help children with autism regulate stress so that they can calm down.

Music helps the body recover from states of tension. Some experts believe music therapy has a strong impact on the nervous system, the brain, and the cognitive functions of young children with autism. It has been suggested music therapy can help children with sensory processing issues, too.

Music therapists use particular melodies, rhythms, dynamics, sounds, etc., to help those with autism spectrum disorders to express feelings like anger or anxiety. The therapist aims to help regulate the autistic child’s states of tension.

Music therapy is also a means of non-verbal communication: feelings and emotions can be expressed through music. It might help the ASD child by supporting communication skills and social interaction. Music is a form of expression without words, which makes it particularly useful for non-verbal children and for children with speech delays.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Music

Music therapy is a well-established and effective therapeutic approach that harnesses the power of music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. It has a wide range of therapeutic potential. The key ones are communication improvement and sensory stimulation.

A Bridge to Communication

Music, with its universal language, has the extraordinary ability to bridge communication gaps. For children with autism who struggle with communicating, music becomes an alternative. Melodies, rhythms, and non-verbal cues inherent in music provide a platform for these children to convey their emotions and thoughts.

Sensory Integration

Sensory sensitivity is a common trait among children with autism. The sensory-rich nature of music can aid in sensory integration, helping children become more comfortable with various stimuli.

Engaging with musical instruments, different genres, and sounds can gradually desensitize the child to sensory triggers. As a result, the child experiences improved tolerance and reduced anxiety.

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Which Forms of Music Therapy are Suitable for Children With Autism

There are two different groups of music therapy: active and receptive (passive) music therapy.

Music therapy is not new at all. The impact music has on our minds and our bodies has been well-known for hundreds of years. Music therapists originally used the receptive form, where the patient listened to music.

Through the long development of music therapy, this has changed. Today, receptive music therapy is applied alongside or in combination with the active form, where the autistic child improvises with music and can express his/her feelings freely.

During a music therapy session, the music therapist reacts to the moving body of the child and his/her pitch. The therapist also utilizes several musical instruments.

The lengths of sessions vary. Sometimes, they last only a few minutes and become extended, depending on the child’s individuality.

Sessions can be one-on-one or in a group setting. There is also family-centered music therapy, where the whole family gets involved in the sessions. This approach aims to help the autistic child and the entire family unit to stabilize, maintain, and improve mental and physical health.

Music therapy should always be conducted by a well-educated music therapist with at least an undergraduate degree in music therapy and at least 1,200 hours of clinical training. Depending on the child’s situation, the therapist should formulate the goals for the child and discuss these with the parents.

The aims of the therapy program should be documented in writing to enable a long-term review of progress. Each music therapist will provide specific guidelines for each child’s therapy program.

Benefits of Music Therapy For ASD Children

Various autism research studies show music therapy is beneficial for tackling challenging behaviors, reducing anxiety, and improving the child’s attention. 

Research also shows that music therapy can support self-confidence and improve social interaction, independence, concentration, attention, and motivation. In different clinical studies, it has been found that there is a link between musical activities and learning outcomes. Here are some of the key benefits of music therapy for children on the spectrum.

Emotional Expression and Regulation

Music is deeply intertwined with emotions. Through music therapy, children with autism can learn to identify and express their feelings in a structured and enjoyable manner. As a result, they experience enhanced emotional regulation, reduced meltdowns, and an improved sense of inner calm.

Cultivating Social Skills

Collaborative music-making experiences encourage social interaction among children with autism. Group sessions create opportunities for shared experiences and joint attention. As children synchronize their actions to the rhythm of music, they naturally develop their social skills.

Enhancing Communication Skills

Children on the autism spectrum may face verbal communication challenges. Music therapy provides an alternative channel for self-expression and communication. Melodies, rhythms, and non-verbal cues become a means through which they convey their thoughts and feelings.

On top of that, the repetitive and structured nature of music aids in language development. That way, children can articulate their words and phrases better.

The Mechanisms Behind Music Therapy for Autism

The mechanisms of music therapy involve a complex interplay of psychological, neurological, and emotional processes. Research has shed light on how music therapy promotes therapeutic benefits, including neurological pathways, sensory integration, and rhythmic entertainment.

Neurological Pathways

Music works like magic, activating multiple brain regions, making it a powerful tool for cognitive development. In children with autism, music can stimulate neural connections, aiding in developing skills such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. This is especially important for rewiring pathways that may be affected by the condition.

Sensory Integration

It’s common for children on the spectrum to experience sensory sensitivities. Music therapy can help them modulate sensory inputs, gradually reducing sensitivities and improving sensory integration. By engaging with different auditory stimuli, children adapt to various sensory experiences.

Rhythmic Entertainment

Rhythmic patterns in music can synchronize with motor movements. Children on the autism spectrum sometimes struggle with motor coordination. Luckily, music therapy utilizes rhythmic entertainment to improve that part of their development. Clapping, dancing, and tapping to the beat can translate to improved motor abilities.

How Music Therapy for Autism Can Help Your Child on the Spectrum

The Orff and Nordoff/Robbins Approaches

Parents of children with autism might hear about the “Orff music therapy” approach and Orff music instruments. These are percussion instruments, such as drums and triangles, which can be played without any previous musical knowledge.

Music therapy is not about improving musical skills or perfecting the voice. Rather, this approach assumes that there is a level of musicality in every child and focuses on improving communication skills social skills, and making it easier for the autistic child to build relationships with other people.

Parents might also read about the “Nordoff/Robbins” approach, aiming for psychological development. Here, the focus is more on musical development than in the case of the Orff approach. Musical instruments and the voice of the child play an important role.

Practical Applications of Music Therapy

Music therapy for autism has many practical applications across various settings. However, there are three most important factors to remember: individualized approaches, incorporating favorite tunes, and progress tracking.

Individualized Approaches

Every child on the spectrum is unique, and so are their needs. Music therapy offers flexibility to tailor interventions to every child’s preferences and sensitivities. Because of that, therapists often work closely with parents to understand the child’s strengths and challenges. 

Incorporating Favorite Tunes

Familiar music can be a powerful tool for engaging children with autism. Incorporating their favorite songs into therapy sessions can motivate them and create a sense of comfort. These special musical selections can bridge the gap between the child’s comfort zone and the therapeutic environment.

Progress Tracking

Measuring the impact of music therapy is essential for tracking progress. Therapists use various assessment tools to monitor cognitive, emotional, and social advancements. This ensures that the therapy remains effective and allows adjustments to be made as the child grows.

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All in all, music therapy is an approach worth considering for parents who want to help release their child from feelings of isolation and anxiety. Music therapy can be conducted in a group or in an individual setting and can potentially improve spontaneous self-expression.

Aiming to achieve the highest standard of care, a good music therapist will ensure that each child with autism experiences joy in music and movement. Therapists should support each unique child to learn how to express happiness, anger, grief, and anxiety, and perhaps this can later help them to learn how to cope with these feelings in their everyday lives.


Q: How does music therapy differ from traditional therapies for autism?

A: Music therapy uses the power of music to address various developmental domains, making it distinct from traditional therapies.

Q: Can music therapy completely replace other forms of treatment?

A: Music therapy is often used as a complementary approach alongside other treatments, which offers a comprehensive support system.

Q: Are there specific types of music that work better for children with autism? 

A: Preferences vary among children. However, calming and repetitive melodies typically have a positive impact.

Q: Can music therapy benefit adults with autism as well?

A: Yes, music therapy can be adapted to suit the needs of adults with autism, helping them enhance their quality of life.

Q: How long does it take to see noticeable improvements through music therapy? 

A: The timeline varies for each child. Some may show improvements within a few weeks, while others might take longer to show signs of progress.

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