Music Therapy for Autism

Playing Guitar
Playing Guitar, Image Courtesy of zirconicusso, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Autistic spectrum disorders are fairly common, though rates vary from one nation to the next:

    • United States: 1 in 110 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 March 2011)
    • Canada: 1 in 147 (Norris et al., 2006)
    • United Kingdom: 1 in 167 (Norris et al., 2006)
    • Mexico: 6 in 1,000 (Autism Society, n.d.)
    • India: 1 in 250 (Autism Society, n.d.)
    • China: 1.1 in 1,000 (Autism Society, n.d.).

It’s difficult to determine how much of this variance is attributable to actual autism rate differences and what proportion of the difference results from different rates of diagnosis. Some countries, such as the United States, cast a relatively wide net, including autistic spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome,* whereas others focus more narrowly on severe, obvious cases of autism when making diagnoses.

Autism and related disorders are characterized by a variety of problems, including impaired social functioning, language deficits, a compulsion to engage in repetitive or ritualistic behaviours and movements, and difficulty coping with change (Boso et al., 2007). Music therapy, which is nonthreatening and nonverbal, seems to be particularly effective for mitigating some of the problems associated with autism (Staum, n.d.).

Music Therapy Techniques

Music therapy is used to promote social, emotional, and physical well-being. Commonly used music therapy techniques include:

    • Entrainment and bioacoustic therapies that use metered music or low-frequency vibration combined with relaxing music to bring the body back to a calmer, more natural rhythmic state
    • Creative music production that facilitates increased behavioural and cognitive flexibility
    • Activities that encourage social interaction such as tossing a ball back and forth with a partner in tune to the music or making music with another individual

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Autism

Orr et al. (1998) note that one of autism’s defining characteristics is the presence of sensory anomalies. Those with autistic spectrum disorders tend to be either under-reactive or over-reactive to certain sounds, tastes, textures, sights, or smells. Auditory sensory problems may include:

    • Blocking out certain sound stimuli
    • Being unable to filter out irrelevant noise
    • Startling in response to sudden noises that don’t normally scare other people
    • Becoming agitated in response to sounds that don’t typically bother other people (i.e., a ticking clock)

According to Wigram and Gold (2005), music therapy and assessment can provide a variety of benefits for people with autistic spectrum disorders, particularly those who suffer from significant communication difficulties. It’s believed that music’s predictability and structure are the characteristics that that make it appealing to individuals with autistic spectrum disorders. Receptive music therapy (listening to therapeutic music) can reduce stress and anxiety, and various case studies suggest that active improvisational music therapy can:

    • Improve communication or enhance language development
    • Increase emotional responsiveness
    • Facilitate social interaction and turn-taking
    • Promote mental flexibility to reduce the rigid need for sameness

Overall, many different researchers have found that music therapy can improve the functioning of both children and adults with autistic spectrum disorders (Gold & Wigram, 2010).

Autism and Musical Talent

Many of those with autism are particularly responsive to music, and some are quite talented as well. If music becomes a special interest, with their intense dedication and focus, people with autistic spectrum disorders can become accomplished musicians. Interestingly, many people on the autistic spectrum have perfect pitch or exceptional aptitude with a preferred instrument. In addition, some autistic children who don’t speak at all are willing to sing (Staum, n.d.).

Some people with autistic spectrum disorders have problems with motor coordination, which may impede progress initially when learning to play an instrument. But with repeated practice, and in some cases the assistance of a physical therapist, such difficulties can often be overcome (Hourigan & Hourigan, 2009). In fact, playing a musical instrument is a great way to improve fine motor skills, assuming that the student enjoys it.

Music therapy isn’t a cure for autism. Rather, it’s a way of treating some of the symptoms that cause distress for the individual with an autistic spectrum disorder and his or her loved ones.

More Information on Music Therapy

In addition to autistic spectrum disorders, music therapy has been used to benefit people with learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, acute or chronic pain, physical disabilities, and mental health issues such as depression. For those seeking more information on music therapy or looking for music therapists in their region, I’ve compiled a list of worldwide and country-specific associations and charitable organizations:

More Music Articles

For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the main Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.

*Asperger’s syndrome has been removed from the DSM as a diagnostic category, and is now considered part of the larger autistic spectrum. However, many people still use and identify with the term, and it has been an area of focus for prior studies, so we continue to use Asperger’s syndrome in this article series. 

References:

    • Autism Society. (n.d.). “Incidence Numbers from Other Countries.” Support.Autism-society.org.
    • Boso, M.; Emanuele, E.; Minazzi, V.; Abbamonte, M.; & Politi, P. (2007). “Effect of Long-Term Interactive Music Therapy on Behavior Profile and Musical Skills in Young Adults with Severe Autism.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 13(7), 709-712.
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (31 March 2011). “Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).” CDC.gov.
    • Gold, C.; Wigram, T.; & Elefant, C. (2010). Music Therapy for Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Review). The Cochrane Collaboration, JohnWiley & Sons, Ltd.
    • Hourigan, R., & Hourigan, A. (2009). “Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understandings and Perspectives.” Music Educators Journal, 96(1), 40-45.
    • Norris, S.; Pare, J.R.; & Starky, S. (2006). “Childhood Autism in Canada: Some Issues Relating to Behavioural Intervention.” Parliament of Canada, Parl.gc.ca.
    • Staum, M.J. (n.d.). “Education: Music Therapy and Language.” Autism Research Institute.
    • Wigram, T.T., & Gold, C.C. (2006). “Music Therapy in the Assessment and Treatment of Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Clinical Application and Research Evidence.” Child: Care, Health & Development, 32(5), 535-542.

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