Music has a strong effect on our mind. Music can work like a bridge of communication. This makes music therapy suitable for treating the particularities of many autistic children.
However, due to limited information, parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have many questions. Does music therapy simply mean singing with my autistic child? Does it entail my child listening to music? Is there active involvement through playing musical instruments? Does my child need to be musical? Is music therapy something new? Where can I find music therapy for autism near me?
These questions are enough to make your head spin! Understandably, parents of children with autism who hear about music therapy are unlikely to know what happens during a music therapy session. After doing some research, parents will then discover there is a variety of different types of music therapy to consider. And, to make matters more confusing, there is not a common definition of music therapy that is accepted by everyone. If parents have tried other therapies before and consulted many different doctors, experts, teachers, and teaching assistants, it might be hard for them to believe that music will be helpful for their autistic child.
Because there are so many questions surrounding what music therapy actually is, in this article I will seek to bring clarity into this topic and I will outline some of the benefits of music therapy by showing the current standard as well as the latest findings in autism research.
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 the emotions, it has been suggested that music, applied as music therapy, can help children with autism to regulate stress, so that they can calm down. Music helps the body recover from states of tension and some experts believe music therapy has a strong impact on the nervous system, on the brain, and on the cognitive functions of young children with autism. It has been suggested music therapy can help children with sensory processing issues, too.
Music therapy involves using music’s calming influence. Some say it can help children with autism to find an inner rest and it can even tackle behaviors. Music therapy as a treatment means applying the benefits of music as an intervention between art and both physical and mental health.
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.
Music therapy for children with autism is also often used in combination with dancing, painting, or playing. It can be undertaken in a one-on-one setting or through group work, and there are different holistic forms of music therapy to consider.
Which forms of music therapy are suitable for ASD children?
Basically, there are two different groups of music therapy: the active and the receptive (passive) music therapy.
Music therapy is not new at all. The impact music has on our mind and on our body has been well known for hundreds of years. Music therapists originally used the receptive form, where the patient was simply listening to music. Through the long development of music therapy, this has changed, so that today receptive music therapy gets applied alongside or in combination with the active form, where the autistic child is improvising with music and gets the opportunity to express his/her feelings freely.
During a music therapy session, the music therapist reacts to the moving body of the child and to 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 individuality of the child.
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Sessions can be one-on-one or in a group setting. There is also family centred music therapy, where the whole family gets involved in the sessions. This approach aims to help the autistic child and 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, who, depending on the child’s situation, formulates the goals for the child and discusses these with the parents.
The aims of the therapy program should be documented in writing to enable a long-term review of progress. Each individual music therapist will provide specific guidelines for each child’s therapy program.
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, because music therapy is not about improving musical skills or perfecting the voice. Music therapy assumes that there is a level of musicality in every child and instead 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, with its aim of psychological development. Here the focus is more on the musical development than in the case of the Orff approach. Musical instruments and the voice of the child play an important role.
Can music therapy complement ABA therapy?
Parents who are interested in music therapy for their ASD child might have consulted many professionals before, and may have tried other therapies with their child. They might have experiences with ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy. It is believed by some experts that the calming influence of music therapy and its potential to reduce some challenging behaviors makes it a good intervention to use in combination with ABA therapy.
What results can I expect from music therapy?
Various autism research studies show music therapy is beneficial for tackling some challenging behaviors, reducing anxiety, and improving the attention of the child. Research also shows that music therapy can support self-confidence, 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. Meta-studies reveal that autistic children in particular show great musicality, so music therapy can be a useful intervention. Case studies show that music therapy can help build a bridge between the autistic child and the world outside.
Parents of children with autism are often told different things about music therapy. There is not as much literature or research available to support music therapy as some parents might find necessary. However, the general consensus is that music itself can have a positive impact on many people with autism: as well as neurotypical people.
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. Although research is still fairly limited, it is hard to deny that music therapy can help an ASD child to learn through the means of improvisation, and to practice skills in a playful way. Music therapy is a means of connecting musical activities, sounds, and rhythm with social and communication skills. Evidence based, improvisational music therapy can also 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.