Music Therapy for Autism: A Comprehensive Guide 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition characterized by challenges with social communication and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. While there is no known cure for autism, various therapies can make a tremendous difference in helping children on the spectrum develop skills, improve behaviors, and reach their full potential. One such therapy is music therapy.

Music Therapy for Autism A Comprehensive Guide 
Music Therapy for Autism A Comprehensive Guide 

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the evidence-based clinical use of music interventions to meet therapeutic goals. After a thorough assessment, board-certified music therapists develop an individualized plan with specific objectives tailored to the child’s needs.

Sessions incorporate a variety of music-based techniques, including singing, instrument play, movement to music, music listening, songwriting, and improvisation. The therapy is conducted in a positive environment that motivates the child to actively participate. Music therapists work in one-on-one sessions and group settings to address target skills.

Music therapy is an established therapeutic approach that has been practiced for over 70 years. Therapists complete an accredited academic and clinical training program and pass a national board certification exam to earn the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist-Board Certified).

Music therapy is not the same as music education. The primary focus is helping the child meet non-musical goals and develop skills they can apply to everyday life, using music strategically as the therapeutic medium.

Benefits of Music Therapy for Autism

Research indicates music therapy provides a host of benefits for children on the autism spectrum:

Communication

  • Improves verbal communication skills: speaking, vocabulary
  • Develops non-verbal communication: eye contact, gestures, joint attention
  • Increases social interaction and initiation

Social Skills

  • Builds skills such as turn taking, imitation, sharing
  • Fosters social motivation
  • Teaches appropriate social behaviors
  • Improves social-emotional understanding

Behavioral Regulation

  • Reduces maladaptive behaviors like aggression or self-injury
  • Manages anxiety and improves coping skills
  • Increases focus, compliance, and ability to follow directions

Sensory Processing

  • Addresses hypo- or hypersensitivities to sound
  • Helps modulate reactions to noises and regulate arousal levels

Cognition

  • Enhances cognitive skills: attention, memory, sequencing
  • Improves academic-related skills
  • Increases ability to understand emotions and perspectives

Motor Skills

  • Develops gross motor skills through musical movement
  • Targets fine motor skills using instruments
  • Improves coordination and motor planning

Quality of Life

  • Reduces family stress and strengthens parent-child relationship
  • Fosters enjoyment, self-expression, and participation
  • Enriches the child’s life experiences through music

How Music Therapy Helps Children With Autism

It is particularly well-suited for individuals with autism for several key reasons:

Music Captures Attention

The parts of the brain that process music frequently remain intact in autism. Most children on the spectrum show heightened interest in musical sounds and a propensity to focus on music. Therapists harness this tendency to gain and hold attention. Musical cues also provide structure.

Music Motivates Engagement

Children are often eager to participate in music activities they find pleasurable. This motivates them to get involved and maintain engagement in therapeutic tasks. Music provides a source of intrinsic reinforcement.

Music Facilitates Communication

Music interacts with the auditory system and language centers of the brain. Therapists incorporate music to stimulate speech development and model communication turns. Song facilitates language learning.

Music Reduces Anxiety

Soothing, calming music can alleviate anxiety and stress for children on the spectrum. Familiar, predictable musical patterns also help them feel secure. This therapeutic effect allows them to better focus on treatment goals.

Music Fosters Success

Musical tasks provide opportunities for small successes, building confidence and self-efficacy. A sense of mastery helps encourage socialization, exploration, and further learning. Music therapy allows children to experience positive interactions in a structured setting.

Current Research on Music Therapy and Autism

A growing body of research demonstrates the efficacy of music therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum:

  • A 2020 meta-analysis of 16 high-quality studies concluded that music therapy has a significant, medium-sized effect on both social and non-social outcomes. Effects were greatest for communication, social interaction, and social-emotional reciprocity.
  • Multiple studies show music therapy improves social responsiveness, joint attention, turn taking, imitation, and initiation of communication.
  • A 2015 study found 8 weeks of family-centered music therapy increased parent-child interactions. Parents reported better communication and more social connection.
  • A 2018 literature review concluded music therapy effectively enhances social motivation and attitude toward socialization.
  • Several studies reveal music therapy reduces anxiety, aggression, irritability, hyperactivity, stereotypy, and other maladaptive behaviors in children with ASD.
  • Research shows music therapy sessions can successfully be incorporated into school settings to help students achieve IEP goals.

While more research is still needed, the existing evidence supports the use of music therapy interventions for children on the autism spectrum.

Finding a Qualified Music Therapist

It is important to find a qualified professional music therapist to work with your child. The Music Therapy-Board Certified (MT-BC) credential ensures the therapist:

  • Completed an approved music therapy degree program
  • Successfully finished 1200 hours of supervised clinical training
  • Passed the national board certification exam

This rigorous process guarantees you are getting a highly trained music therapy clinician.

Music therapists work in various settings such as private practices, schools, community agencies, and clinics. Some offer services in the home as well. Check with your insurance provider about coverage. Medicaid, state disability programs, and private insurance plans may provide reimbursement.

To find an MT-BC near you, use the therapist locator on the American Music Therapy Association website. You can search by location and filter by expertise like autism. Schedule a consultation to ask questions and ensure the therapist has experience working with children on the spectrum.

Incorporating Music Therapy With Other ASD Interventions

Music therapy is often used in conjunction with other interventions as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a child’s specific needs. Complementary therapies may include:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) – Music builds motivation to participate in ABA. Songs can be incorporated into teaching communication, social, and adaptive skills.
  • Speech Therapy – Music activities develop pre-verbal skills. Therapists use melodic intonation and song to improve articulation, rhythm, and vocalizations.
  • Occupational Therapy – Music helps with sensory regulation. Instruments improve fine motor skills. Dancing targets gross motor coordination.
  • Physical Therapy – Musical movement, dance/choreography, and adapted instruments facilitate motor skill development.
  • Social Skills Training – Music engages children in structured social situations. Songs model appropriate interactions.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Musical cues provide predictability and routines for managing challenging behaviors. Soothing music alleviates anxiety.

Making Progress With Music Therapy

Music therapy aims to help children on the spectrum reach individualized goals and maximize their potential to live fulfilling, independent lives. With regular music therapy sessions, your child can make tremendous progress developing communication, social, behavioral, academic, motor, and emotional skills.

While autism has no medical cure, early behavioral interventions can have a significant long-term impact. Music therapy provides a highly motivating, engaging, evidence-based approach to help your child acquire skills in a naturalistic setting.

Call Jade ABA About Music Therapy in Maryland

Jade ABA provides outstanding ABA therapy services in Maryland, with programs individually tailored to each child’s needs. Our compassionate, highly trained therapists incorporate techniques like music therapy into comprehensive treatment plans.

We are dedicated to helping children on the spectrum reach their full potential. Our individualized, play-based ABA approach fosters learning, skill building, and independence.

To learn more about our music therapy-enhanced ABA services, call Jade ABA today at (410) 616-0901. We offer in-home therapy in Maryland and are committed to providing the best quality care. Contact us to find out how we can help your child thrive!

References

American Music Therapy Association. (2015). Music therapy as a treatment modality for autism spectrum disorders. https://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/MT_Autism_2006.pdf

American Music Therapy Association. (2019). Music therapy interventions in trauma, depression, & substance abuse: Selected references and key findings. https://www.musictherapy.org/assets/1/7/MT_Trauma_Depression.pdf

Geretsegger, M., Elefant, C., Mössler, K. A., & Gold, C. (2014). Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (6). https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004381.pub3

Hillier, A., Greher, G., Poto, N., & Dougherty, M. (2012). Positive outcomes following participation in a music intervention for adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 201-215. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735610386837

LaGasse, A. B. (2014). Effects of a music therapy group intervention on enhancing social skills in children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 250-275. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/thu012

Lim, H. A. (2010). Effect of “developmental speech and language training through music” on speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Music Therapy, 47(1), 2-26. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/47.1.2

Simpson, K., & Keen, D. (2011). Music interventions for children with autism: narrative review of the literature. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(11), 1507–1514. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-1172-y

Thompson, G. A., McFerran, K. S., & Gold, C. (2014). Family-centred music therapy to promote social engagement in young children with severe autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled study. Child: Care, Health and Development, 40(6), 840–852. https://doi.org/10.1111/cch.12121

Vaiouli, P., & Andreou, G. (2018). Communication and language development of young children with autism: A review of research in music. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 39(2), 323–329. https://doi.org/10.1177/1525740117705117

Wan, C. Y., Bazen, L., Baars, R., Libenson, A., Zipse, L., Zuk, J., Norton, A., & Schlaug, G. (2011). Auditory-motor mapping training as an intervention to facilitate speech output in non-verbal children with autism: a proof of concept study. PloS One, 6(9), e25505. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0025505

Whipple, J. (2004). Music in intervention for children and adolescents with autism: a meta-analysis. Journal of Music Therapy, 41(2), 90–106. https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/41.2.90

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