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The Verdict: Music Therapy for Autism

This is a start of a series of articles exploring the actual use and effectiveness of different therapies for autism. We hear about so many different kinds of therapies and each of them can be expensive and involve a lot of time and effort. This series of articles will help parents choose what’s best for their child and make good decisions that are practical and are based on scientific knowledge.

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is a type of therapy for autism that uses songs, music and musical instruments in a purposeful way to teach children. It has been found to be useful in improving language and communication, peer interactions and expression. Children have also shown improvement in areas of behavior, psychosocial skills, cognition and perceptual motor abilities after regular music therapy.

What is done in a Music Therapy Session?

Children with autism find music non threatening. Music therapy for Autism may include activities to improve social interaction like passing a ball to music or imitating and repeating a rhythmic beat. Children who do not speak are taught to speak through songs. Simple songs are used to communicate with the child and help them to respond. Therapists also use music to teach a child about notes, pitches and sounds that are used in language. Music therapy can be done in individual sessions, or small group sessions. Music therapist do a complete assessment of the child, and work on specific goals based on their assessment.

Who does Music Therapy for Autism:

Music therapists are trained in using music for therapeutic purposes in autism. They are usually required to first complete a degree in music, and then do a specialized course in music therapy. In the US Music therapists  are required to complete an approved degree program, a 1040 hour internship, and then sit a board examination to receive the MT-BC credential. You can find a trained therapist by writing to [email protected]

How much does it cost in terms of money and other resources?

Music therapy is usually continued for at least 1-2 years. Sessions are 30- 60 minutes long and can be daily, weekly or monthly. If your child is showing interest and special abilities in any instrument, you may need to buy one to keep at home and practice. Most health insurance policies do not cover music therapy. A session can cost between $50-$100 a session depending on the geographical location and the therapist. In the UK, the British music therapy association recommends £30 for a session.

What does scientific research say about Music Therapy?

All the studies done to evaluate the effectiveness of Music Therapy in autism spectrum disorders have been found effective. A study by Kaplan and Steele and published in the Journal of Music Therapy 2005, found that the skills and responses learnt at music therapy were being translated into daily life. Thus these studies show that music therapy is effective, especially in the area of improving language and communication.

I cannot afford music therapy for my child. Is there anything I can do at home?

Music for Teaching: Songs, or musical activities can be used to teach children with autism. Simple songs can be used to teach new words, animal sounds, colors etc. Use children’s songs and nursery rhymes creatively with props to enhance the learning experience.

Music for Communication: Use interactive songs and songs that have a question part and an answer part to enhance communication. For a non verbal child, you can help a child associate songs or tunes with sleep, toilet, food etc. so that the child can use the song to tell you what they want.

Music for Sensory Activities: Use music during sensory activities to make it more interesting for the child. Set up an obstacle course and put on the music player.  Activities like moving to music and marching to music can also be beneficial for the child.

Music for Relaxation: A lot of children with autism benefit from relaxation music to rest and relax. This music is designed to calm the mind and the body. Half an hour of relaxation music in a quiet dark corner can help the child cope better with the demands of the world around them. Take a look at Jeff Gold’s relaxation music (link given below). People with autism have used this music and have found it relaxing.

Click here to visit Jeff Gold Music.

The Final Verdict:

This is one therapy that you can consider seriously for your child. All the scientific evidence is showing that it is effective, and there are no side effects.

If your child with autism has many needs and is non- verbal, music therapy may be a way to get through to him, and help him learn and communicate. In this case you could try a few sessions, see if it is effective and then decide accordingly. Parents who find it difficult to afford the sessions can go for weekly sessions and use the techniques followed in therapy at home.

If your child with autism is verbal, and enjoys music, but you are not able to afford music therapy, try introducing a particular music instrument to your child at home, and getting a regular music teacher to teach your child. You may need to sit with them and assist, but it will give your child an opportunity to excel in something.

No matter what your financial status is, or what the needs of your child are, I recommend that you use the ideas that I have explained above – i.e using music for learning, communication and relaxation at home.


Where can I read more?

Here are some additional resources on music therapy for Autism:


Scientific evidence:




6 comments to The Verdict: Music Therapy for Autism

  • Ken

    Is it any wonder that a study published in the Music Therapy Journal revealed that music therapy is always effective?

    Why might it be effective? What physiological changes does music therapy cause?

  • Hi,
    The effectiveness of music therapy has not just been proven in the one article I quoted, but also in many other publications including the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Morover, my conclusion that it is effective is based on the cochrane review, which I have provided a link to in the resources section (the second link in the scientific evidence resources). If you take a look at that review you will get an overall idea of all the studies that have been done, and their results. In addition that review answers your second question on why music therapy is effective. To put it in very simple words, music is a method of communication that is simpler than language. I don’t know about physiological effects of music except calming and decreasing stress (something we all experience). I advocate music therapy as a method to improve communication, not as a cure for autism.

  • Kate

    Hello there,
    I am a music therapist whose professional career has been spent providing services to those with special needs, with a very high percentage of those diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
    Firstly, music therapy may -not- always be effective in every case. MT may benefit those who are motivated by and respond well to music/ music-based strategies…not everyone cares for music, and so may not show progress from this approach. Before beginning services, like other therapies, music therapists conduct assessments to determine if such instruction is appropriate.
    This link: http://musictherapy.org/factsheets/MT%20Autism%202006.pdf is a fact sheet from our national organization describing benefits of MT for those diagnosed with ASD. There are other fact sheets, as well, that may provide insight as to why music therapy is beneficial to other individuals’ areas of need- i.e.: mental health, pain management, or Alzheimer’s Disease.
    I hope this information is helpful.

  • Hi!
    I found this article through Google alerts and I want to first say thank you! I’m a music therapist in Columbia, SC and it’s always so nice to see advocacy for music therapy from someone else!

    I do want to point out one thing re: training of a music therapist. Music therapists (at least in the US) are required to complete an approved degree program, a 1040 hour internship, and then sit a board examination to receive the MT-BC credential. If, in the US, someone offers you music therapy services without a current MT-BC or RMT credential, they are not a trained music therapist.

    And to Ken, there are several theories regarding why we perceive music as we do. What we do know is that the brain will not process music as threatening, which is a common block to learning for many children with autism. We also know that music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain, allowing information to be transmitted along different pathways than it might normally be transmitted. We also know that music is inherently interactive and social, two main areas of need for children with autism.

    Science has only just recently (in the past 15-20 years) caught up to being able to explain why music therapy works. It’s really exciting to watch the field grow as we learn more and more.

  • Rowena

    Is there any type of music that is most relaxing, or is it an individual preference?

    • Kate

      Your thought that “relaxing” music is an individual preference is correct. To be “relaxed” is subjective, and what may be relaxing for me not be the same music you may turn to when you need a sense of calm. 🙂 Kate

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