Can Music Therapy For Autism Offer Real Benefits?
Jan 24, 2024, 9 min read
Over the years, many forms of therapy have emerged that utilise a range of structures and tools to help various mental health conditions. What was once only talking therapy has evolved to include many different creative practices that show promise in the areas of therapy, such as drama therapy or art therapy.
Here, we are taking a closer look at the world of music therapy and its potential for autistic people, by exploring how music and autism interact, the benefits of music therapy for both autistic children and adults, the studies supporting its effectiveness, and how to find an approved music therapist if you think this could be the best form of therapy for yourself or a loved one with autism.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about autism and music therapy, we can help.
What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how the individual interacts with people around them and the wider world. It also impacts how they understand and respond to sensory information. Autistic people may experience a number of sensory issues which can cause them to experience a negative reaction around certain triggers. This can cause things like difficulties with social communication and interaction, repetitive or restricted behaviours or interests, different ways of learning or paying attention, and more.
Some common symptoms of autism that adults experience include the likes of:
- Trouble reading social cues
- Trouble participating in conversations
- Trouble relating to the thoughts and feelings of others
- Trouble regulating emotions
- Trouble building and maintaining friendships
- Trouble reading body language or facial expressions
- The use of a robotic or monotone speaking pattern that makes it difficult to convey emotions
- Trouble maintaining eye contact during conversations
- Restrictive or repetitive behaviours
- Difficulty with last-minute changes to routine
- Fixation on one or two favourite subjects – this could be something the person cares deeply about or is particularly skilled in
- Sensitivity to sensory input like pain, touch or sound – according to the Autism Research Institute, an autistic person with sensory issues might pull away from any physical touch, dislike wearing certain materials, and more
In children, the signs of autism may look like:
- Lining up toys or objects, and becoming upset when the order is changed
- Repeating words or phrases over and over
- Playing with toys in the same way each time
- Focusing on parts of an object, such as the wheels on a toy car
- Getting upset by small changes to the norm
- Obsessive interests
- Obsessively following certain routines
- Movements such as flapping hands, rocking, or spinning in circles
- Unusual reactions to certain sounds, smells, tastes, or how things look or feel
Each autistic person has their own unique traits and symptoms, so one person’s diagnosis of autism may look completely different to someone else’s, and will require a bespoke type of support as a result.
What is music therapy?
Music therapy is a specific type of therapy that uses parts of the music experience, such as rhythm, tonality and melody, as a method of communication and relating during a therapy session. Within a music therapy session, people are encouraged to use their voice and various instruments (all accessible even by those who are not musical or do not play a specific instrument) to create music in an informal way in order to convey their emotions and thoughts.
By fostering an environment where an individual feels comfortable enough to explore the connection with their inner thoughts and feelings, and reflect this back to the therapist in the form of music, untapped emotions can be explored and more may be communicated.
Each session will be unique to the individual, therefore it might include lyrical or instrumental music, improvised or composed music, sung or spoken lyrics, or something else. The person may also benefit more from individual sessions or small group sessions depending on their situation, and this will be decided by the music therapist.
Research has shown the effectiveness of music therapy in a number of different types of people, including autistic people, where it has been found to improve communication skills, as well as their social development, self-expression, cognitive development, creativity, empowerment, and more.
You can learn more about this type of therapy in our guide: Is Music Therapy Right For You?
How are music and autism connected?
Without witnessing a session, it can be hard to understand how something as simple as music could have such an impact on an autistic person, but there is growing research showing its potential in this area.
When it comes to music therapy for autism specifically, this form of therapy focuses on building trust with an individual and creating a personal connection by finding the exact musical experience that will impact them. It has been found to potentially improve skills in the areas of communication, sensory issues, cognition, motor skills, self-reliance, self-determination, and more.
One study reported benefits such as increased social behaviour, attention to tasks, vocalisation, gestures, and vocabulary comprehension. The same study found increases in communication and social skills, body awareness, coordination, and self-care skills. There was also a noted reduction in anxiety.
With such a creative form of therapy, it can be difficult to imagine what benefits could come from this, however studies have found that music therapy was actually superior to placebo therapy or standard care in the areas of:
- Social interaction
- Nonverbal and verbal communicative skills
- Initiating behaviour
- Social‐emotional reciprocity
- Social adaptation
- The quality of parent‐child relationships
One of the biggest upsides to music therapy is that no studies report any side effects from the practice, making it a relatively safe and potentially enjoyable form of therapy to explore at any age.
That said, it is important to note that areas of potential harm have been identified in studies, such as physical (for example, musicogenic epilepsy or seizures), affective (for example mood worsening and anxiety), and behavioural (for example maladaptive coping strategies like denial or disengagement). For this reason, working with a registered, professional music therapist is always recommended when attempting any sort of music therapy.
Is there any science behind it?
Yes. Music therapy has always shown promise in a number of areas relating to the brain and mental health. Over the years, studies have shown the scope of what music can achieve, with evidence to support the idea that music listening or musical training can:
- Alter structural elements of the brain by increasing grey and white matter density
- Improve cognitive, emotional, physical and social domains
- Influence diverse neural circuits and neuro-modulatory systems
- Modulate the engagement of the brain regions involved in empathy, self-awareness, imagining the future and more
- Trigger the release of hormones like endorphins and oxytocin which can promote social bonding and alleviate pain
- Be used in the treatment of diseases like stroke, Parkinson's disease and dementia
Music therapy has been used specifically to help autistic people since the early 1950s, and as mentioned, several studies have found it to improve behaviour, social communication, brain connectivity and the parent-child relationship. Research has even suggested that, when measured immediately after a music therapy intervention, this form of therapy had a more positive effect when compared with placebo therapy or standard care in increasing quality of life and reducing autism symptom severity.
In addition, further studies have reported a positive effect of educational music therapy on autistic patients, particularly in the area of speech production. Similarly, they reported a positive effect of improvisational music therapy in the area of social functioning.
What are the benefits of music therapy for autistic children?
Music therapy can be incredibly useful as a therapeutic tool for autistic children, as being involved in making music can both stimulate and relax the individual, leading to positive changes in a number of areas. Music therapy with autistic children can help to encourage:
- Listening skills
- Spontaneous play
- Their drive to communicate
- Improved coordination and stronger muscles
- Relationship building
- Improved concentration
- Language development
- Taking turns
- Creativity and imagination
One case study from Autism.org.uk reported a 7-year-old female autistic child who previously spent much of her time isolating herself by either curling up quietly or jumping around and making a high pitched sound.
By playing music that exactly matched the movements and sounds she was making, the music therapist found that the child began to vocalise to the same pitch as the music, which provided her with a new sense of control and connection to the world around her. As a result, she displayed improved eye contact and interest.
Another example of positive behavioural change from music therapy came from a 20-week study that accelerated the social behaviours in autistic children. The study noted improvements such as the children making eye contact, communicating verbally, focusing for five minutes on a game, coping well with changes, and adapting their behaviour to match the situation. The biggest improvements came in the areas of being able to focus on something together, and taking initiative.
What are the benefits of music therapy for autistic adults?
Autism often presents differently in children than it does in adults, so the outcomes of music therapy for adults can be different also. There are limited study findings on music therapy for autistic adults, with young adults being the oldest age group studied, so it is thought that no conclusions can be drawn in relation to music therapy for autistic adults.
However, one study on the subjective experiences of music in autistic adults found music was most often used to alter or match their mood, or as a therapeutic tool that can be used to, for example, ease emotional pain. Additionally, music helped to create feelings of belonging, aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment. If the individual was a musician themselves, it also offered a sense of achievement.
One case study from Autism.org.uk looked at the experience of a 37-year-old autistic male who often became distressed throughout the day, and would try to hurt himself and others as a result. This was thought to be due to an inability to properly express memories of traumatic childhood experiences, so music therapy was used as a tool to help facilitate this.
By using instruments and vocal sounds for self-expression, he was able to begin to process feelings of sadness, anger and pain, and appeared immediately calm after each music therapy session.
If you have questions about adult autism, you may also find our article on what to expect from an adult autism assessment helpful.
Can just listening to music help?
While listening to music can offer a number of benefits which can be explored as a separate practice, music therapy is more of a tailored and curated approach to therapy.
Studies on the mental health of autistic children aged 4 to 7 have identified that music therapy is more efficient than simply listening to music, so if this is a type of therapy you believe you would like to explore for yourself or an autistic loved one, it is important to seek a qualified, professional music therapist who understands the intricacies of the therapeutic practice and can guide you through a structured program that measures its effectiveness over time.
How to find an approved music therapist
It is clear that music therapy could be highly beneficial for autistic people – an analysis of 12 studies indicated most cases reported positive outcomes from this type of therapy. For this reason, it is thought that music therapy could be a very promising intervention for autistic individuals, and this may be something you would like to look into for yourself or an autistic loved one.
At Augmentive, we believe advice and support for autistic people should be bespoke and tailored to the individual in order to get the best results from any form of therapy, which is why we offer our free 15 minute consultation before you begin working with a therapist. This consultation is designed to find out more about you, any conditions you may have, your current mental health struggles, your therapy goals, and more.
By discussing this first, we can help pair you with the most relevant therapist for you. If music therapy is an avenue you would like to explore, we can recommend an experienced, qualified music therapist who is registered with the British Association for Music Therapists, so you can start your music therapy journey in the best way.
If you have a question about mental health, like learning about the triad of impairments in autism, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private autism assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.