Proactive Healing – How Music Therapy Benefits Patients with Autism

Dr. Temple Grandin, an autism activist, was first diagnosed with the disorder when she was just a toddler. Before discovering that she had autism, doctors first mis-diagnosed her with brain damage. Fortunately her parents took a proactive approach to the news.

After learning her daughter had autism, Temple’s mother hired a speech therapist as well as a nanny who worked on her daughter’s social skills. Temple is now a doctor of animal science and works as a professor at Colorado State University.

When it comes to the broadness of the autism spectrum, she offers, “Mild autism can give you a genius like Einstein. If you have severe autism, you could remain nonverbal. You don’t want people to be on the severe end of the spectrum.”

The Primary Goal of Music Therapy

According to the American Music Therapy Association , even non-verbal autistic children can benefit from the techniques. The primary goal of music therapy is to achieve goals that are not musical in nature.


With autism, these goals fall under two basic headings – communication and social behaviors. Whether a child is completely non-verbal or merely needs assistance learning how to use social graces to behave properly in a public setting, music therapy can help.

Music therapists make it a practice to document notes about each session as part of the treatment plan, just as speech or other therapists would do to track progress. While song and music selection may vary, the general techniques used are the same.

One Therapy to Address Many Traits

Despite the fact that the traits associated with autism could be very different between two children with autism – even in the case of identical twins, some of the outcomes are similar. Here are some of the ones that music therapy may help achieve:

  • Longer attention span
  • Less self-stimulation
  • Better cognitive skills
  • More socialization
  • Less mis-behavior
  • Improved auditory processing
  • Less agitation
  • Enhanced verbal skills
  • Improved sensory and motor skills

Music itself is a type of universal language. It appeals to everyone regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnic background. Even children who are completely non-verbal can mimic music, and enjoy doing so because music is non-threatening.

Using Music as a Stimuli

Autistic children are extremely hypersensitive. This means they are more likely to react to external stimuli, such as music playing, than children who do not have traits associated with the disorder. The stimuli may include passively listening to music or interactive play with instruments.

Music therapists can use whatever type of music that interests the autistic child to encourage communication skills, such as words or hand signals. One child who was non-verbal before music therapy began using clicking noises after just a few sessions with his therapist.

Once the distinction was made, the therapist and parents began working together to use the clicking sounds as a way to communicate with the child. And eventually, this clicking sound was the action that bridged the gap between non-verbal autism and the child learning to speak short phrases.

Music Therapy and Instruments

Learning an instrument is beneficial during music therapy for so many reasons that it is difficult to list them all. Here are some of the more common ones:

  1.  By holding a simple instrument like the bells next to their face while interacting with an autistic child, the music therapist can help the child become more comfortable with eye contact.
  2. Using sounds like clicking the teeth or clucking with the tongue can lead to humming sounds and, eventually, even speech by singing along with songs played in the music therapy sessions.
  3. Playing a wind instrument not only helps strengthen the muscles of the mouth and tongue for verbal communication, but it also promotes self-esteem and allows creative self-expression.

Each child is different, especially when they are diagnosed with autism. The autism spectrum is so broad that even twins may present completely different autistic traits. One might choose to learn piano while another may be content to listen to Adele on his iPod, for example.

The Importance of Certifications

When introducing autistic children to music therapy, it is important to select a therapist who is certified, preferably with a degree from a reputable college or university. That’s because obtaining a degree in music therapy requires more than 1,000 hours of training.

Music therapists, in addition to their music training, also study psychology, anatomy, biology, social and behavioural sciences, physiology, and therapy. As you can see, there is a big difference in a certified music therapist and someone who hasn’t had the proper training.

About the Author

Freelance writer Sophie Evans jokes that she has two offices – one in the eco-friendly home she shares with her family in Balboa Beach, California, and another at wherever the nearest Starbucks is located. When she isn’t writing you can and Sophie spending most of her free time with her husband Rick and their two children.

Melissa Cameron

Melissa Cameron is a 33-year-old mother of two who enjoys spending time with family, scrap booking and writing. Her dream is to one-day work for herself online as a freelance writer. Melissa is an avid Internet surfer enjoys digging up deals and is known by her friends and family as a walking infomercial.

2 thoughts on “Proactive Healing – How Music Therapy Benefits Patients with Autism

  • March 14, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    There is a retirement home in Vancouver called the Villa where a Music Therapist named Natasha Wakaruk has improved the lives of so many of the residents. This story is just another example as to why we all need music in our lives, no matter what age or what potential health issues we are facing.


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