Music therapy for autism

Music therapy can help some people with autism communicate, connect socially, and express themselves — and make great music, too.

When Ethan started music therapy for autism as a young boy, he spoke little and hid under the piano. Fifteen years later, he began performing regularly in front of live audiences and attending community college, according to a New York University article.

Liza, a 9-year-old autistic girl, spoke only four words when she started music therapy. Fifteen months later, she started creating and singing her own songs, as detailed in this article from Harmony Music Therapy.

These are just two of many stories about how music therapy has helped some children and adults with autism develop their communication skills, interact socially, and express their emotions.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as an evidence-based discipline that fuses research with creative, emotional, and unique musical experiences for health treatment and educational purposes.

Music therapy is used in many health areas, including autism. A credentialed therapist does an initial assessment, then develops a program and meets regularly with the autistic person for musical activities.

The session usually begins with the therapist playing music, then asking the client to choose an instrument and participate. The therapist works with the person at their level, focusing on enhancing inherent talents and expression, rather than “fixing” behaviors.

Florida State University’s Music-Play Project and the Artism Project have both taken this process one step further. The programs brought autistic people together in ensembles to create their own improvisational music, sometimes in collaboration with professional musicians.

Playing music with another person can help build self-confidence in some autistic people, especially those with non-verbal autism. Music therapy can also help build:

  • personal expression
  • stress management
  • social link
  • physical co-ordination
  • focus
  • the ability to share and take turns

To see how music therapy works, you can watch this video in which therapist Ryan Judd, from Exeter, New Hampshire, plays instruments alongside Elliot, an autistic adult. You can also watch Judd’s strategic take on Autistic Blind Adult Brandon below.

Many people have stories of how music therapy helps manage certain characteristics of autism. But research and clinical trials don’t always yield the same results. This may be because the results are difficult to standardize and measure scientifically.

A clinical trial 2017 found that music therapy did not significantly improve symptoms of severe autism in children.

A clinical trial 2018 found 8 to 12 weeks of music therapy for school-age children with autism improved:

  • functional brain connectivity
  • social communication
  • quality of family life

And a 2021 review suggests a consistent neuroimaging-based framework to more accurately measure the impact of music therapy on an autistic brain, compared to anecdotal accounts.

Music therapy for people with autism is often improvised. This means that the music is spontaneous and matches the temperament of the person playing.

Music therapists say music with a strong rhythm, simple structure, and simple lyrics is best.

According to Autism Connect, songs that can help with autism include:

Music therapy can help some children and adults with autism express themselves, communicate, interact socially and concentrate. It can also help them magnify their unique talents.

Research results are mixed on music therapy for autism. Some clinical trials find positive results in achieving goals, while others see no significant differences from control groups.

The success of music therapy for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is most often seen on an individual basis, but the result can also be transformative for the person’s family.

To find music therapy classes near you, you can try searching the American Music Therapy Association’s online directory of therapists.