Music Therapy for Autism

Autistic girl playing the violin

If your child responds well to music, consider music therapy for autism. The therapy encourages people with autism to communicate through music while offering sensory experiences in the process. Music therapy can improve communication skills in areas ranging from language development to self-expression. Learn how music therapy can help your child.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is the use of music to stimulate and encourage positive human behavior or responses in a controlled environment. A licensed music therapist conducts the therapy. Music therapy can address many different types of psychological, social, physical, cognitive, language and behavioral issues.

The therapy helps people with many different health conditions including autism, attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome and traumatic brain injury. Music therapists adapt the therapy to each person's specific needs and goals.

Music is an effective form of therapy for autism because most people respond to some form of music. Music therapy provides a non-threatening environment for people with autism to express themselves and accept new ways to communicate with both verbal speech and gestures.

Benefits of Music Therapy for Autism

Music therapy helps people with autism in the following ways:

  • Increases language comprehension skills - A therapist may play songs that relate to specific activities to help the patient understand the meanings of words.
  • Encourages speech: The therapy can involve adding syllable and consonant-vowel sounds to music to increase language skills. The sounds help the person understand the pronunciation of words.
  • Helps with sensory issues: The music helps stimulate senses, focus attention and redirect self-stimulating behaviors toward socially appropriate behavior.
  • Improves two-way communication: Music can help build social skills and encourage peer interaction and conversation.
  • Promotes self-expression and emotional response: Music allows a person with autism to play music, dance, move, make noise or sing to express emotions.
  • Reduces monotone speech: Singing can help reduce monotonic speech by providing examples of the rhyming, word pronunciation and flow of speech accompanied by music.

Music therapy is particularly effective in developing speech and language skills. Speech and language impairments in autism range from mute to limited speech ability. Speech patterns may include sound making such as grunts or sophisticated nonsensical phrases.

Some people with autism also experience echolalia, the automatic repetition of words or phrases out of context. Both hemispheres of the brain process music, which allows a therapist to use music to stimulate cognitive function and build speech skills.

A number of people with autism have a natural talent for music and learn how to play instruments quickly. In fact, some autistic people demonstrate a rare savant or genius level music talent.

Music Therapy Activities

Music therapy activities include:

  • Listening to music: The act of listening to music can help a person with autism learn a word, activity or appropriate behavior. For example, a therapist may show a ball to the patient and then bounce the ball. He may sing, "This is a ball. This is a ball. The ball is bouncing. The ball is bouncing. This is a ball. This is a ball." This song teaches the patient about noun and action verb phrases and helps her better understand language.
  • Creating music with instruments: Playing instruments can stimulate senses and provide emotional fulfillment. It can also encourage speech. A music therapist may have a patient play a harmonica to build awareness of his ability to create sound from his throat, mouth and tongue. This awareness can help build speech skills.
  • Dancing to music: Dancing or moving to music can help a person express emotions. Moving to the music provides a stimulating outlet that can reduce self-stimulatory behavior such as hand flapping or twirling and encourage appropriate social behavior.
  • Singing: Singing songs can help a person with autism learn how to structure a grammatically correct sentence. The therapist sings a phrase, holding an object. The patient repeats the song, holding the object. For example, a therapist may hold up a banana and sing, "Do you eat bananas? Yes, yes." The patient will repeat then take the banana and repeat the song.

Music therapy can also teach appropriate responses to questions. The therapist may ask the patient to listen to a musical phrase or sound and explain what they hear. This helps a person put certain sounds in the appropriate context and may help with fear-induced self-stimulatory behavior and sensory issues.

Journal of Music Therapy Study

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Music Therapy; found that music can help autistic children interact with peers. The study involved four preschool-age children with autism who did not show interest in peer interaction. The researchers set up an outdoor playhouse as a music hut, near a playground. The lead researcher composed a unique song for each child. Both teachers and the children's parents taught the children their unique song, using music therapy techniques for singing and listening.

In the beginning of the study, the teachers established a structured routine for the children. A teacher would take one of the children with autism in the study and a non-autistic peer and initiate play between them in the music hut. During the play session, the teacher and children would sing the autistic child's unique song and use musical instruments. The teacher also guided the peer on how to interact with autistic child. The teachers gradually reduced their assistance during the session. Eventually, the children with autism played with their non-autistic peers independently. The music therapy dramatically improved the peer interaction of the four autistic boys in the study.


Music therapy for autism has helped many people improve autism symptoms. It offers an enjoyable way for people with autism to learn social and communication skills. If you are searching for an effective autism therapy that encourages creativity, music therapy may be the answer for your child. Visit the American Music Therapy Association website for more information and helpful resources.

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