What is Music Therapy?
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions in a therapeutic manner to accomplish specific goals. For the child with autism, music therapy provides them with a new way of sharing, one that doesn’t require words. Therapists use music as a stimulus to achieve non-music goals.
How Effective is Music Therapy for Autism?
Research conducted by AMTA shows that autistic children connect with music in many ways like:
- Singing improves speech
- Rhythm enhances motor behavior
- Songs increase memory even for academic material
Music therapy improves mood, attention span and behavior, which all come together to enhance the autistic child’s ability to learn and interact.
Music therapy is a documented treatment plan with positive outcomes over multiple sessions including:
- Increased attention
- Decreased self-stimulation
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Increased socialization
- Successful self-expression
- Enhanced auditory processing
- Decreased agitation
- Improved verbalization
Therapists and parents report they are reaching milestones with just one year of music therapy.
Music Therapy in Action
Music therapy pioneers Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins worked with a young autistic boy named Edward back in the 1970s and wrote about the experience in their book Creative Music Therapy: A Guide to Fostering Clinical Musicianship. They stated that with music, Edward was able to sustain two-way communication. He because an active participant in his own therapy, as well.
A 2009 study published in the Journal Of Music Therapy reported researchers did a video analysis of music therapists working with autistic clients. They found that by using an autism treatment model, music therapists were able to address three areas:
- Social communication
- Emotional Regulation
- Transactional Support
Other studies show that music therapy is an effective tool to teach language skills and improve speech production.
The Story of Waldo
One story tells of a young man diagnosed with autism when he was younger. By the age of 19, he had yet to find a way to communicate or socialize. His parents turned to music therapy in hopes it would open up his options. With the very first session, the therapist working with Waldo reported that he responded to the music and was particularly sensitive to melody, rhythm and singing speech.
At first, Waldo didn’t speak during any of his music sessions, but would hum along with the music he recognized. The therapist introduced instrumental activities to their sessions and found Waldo able to stay attentive and follow directions. At the same time, there was a decrease in his interfering behaviors such as:
- Climbing on furniture
Music served to reinforce his learning and positive behavior.
The first year of music therapy led to many breakthroughs for Waldo. After 20 years, he was finally initiating eye contact when someone called his name. He was able to speak or sign the word “more” when he wanted to hear the music. The sessions included use of an augmentative communication device that allowed him to answer yes or no questions. During his therapy, he was picking out instruments and songs using pictures.
The music therapist began working in concert with Waldo’s speech therapist to incorporate more singing activities into that treatment, as well. They initiated a home program for Waldo to further enhance the music stimulus. The therapist recorded music to send home and showed Waldo’s father how to use the instruments as teaching tools for everyday tasks.
Over time Waldo began speaking in sentences, answering and asking questions, making comments and following complex directions. He was able to participate in more advanced instrument play and eventually progressed to reading piano and drum music.
Autism Speaks and Sings
The clear success rate of music therapy as a treatment for autism has led to a collaboration between AMTA, Berklee College of Music’s Music Therapy Program and Autism Speaks. The initial program in Boston offers interactive and education sessions for parents and children and the AMTA is looking to expand this project to other communities, as well.
By using music therapy, parents are offering their autistic child a fun and interactive way to build self-confidence, enhance their communication skills and become a socially active member of the community.