How Music Therapy Can Tune the Autistic Brain

Source: PsychCentral

Music therapy can help some autistic people 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 regularly singing in front of audiences and studying at a community college, according to an article by New York University.

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

These are just two of the many stories about how music therapy has helped some autistic children and adults build communication skills, interact socially, and express emotions.

Of note: Music therapy alone doesn’t manage autism features. A solid support system, regular communication with a healthcare team, medications, and possibly vocational specialists can help provide support when needed. 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a range of presentations, and there are many ways to manage ASD features. With the guidance of a licensed professional, music therapy could help with verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication. 

What is music therapy?

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

Music therapy is used in many health fields, 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 starts with the therapist playing music, then having the client pick an instrument and join in. The therapist works with the person at their level, focusing on bringing out inherent talents and expression, rather than “fixing” any behaviors.

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

Why is music therapy used for autism?

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

  • personal expression
  • stress management
  • social connection
  • physical coordination
  • focus
  • the ability to share and take turns

To see how music therapy works, you can see this video in which therapist Ryan Judd, out of Exeter, New Hampshire, plays instruments alongside Elliot, an autistic adult. You can also watch Judd’s strategic approach below with autistic and blind adult Brandon. (YouTube Video Link: Easy-to-Use Calming Strategies for Individuals with Autism, Part 2)

How does music affect the brain?

Scientists don’t yet totally understand how music affects the brain, but it’s clear that it stimulates almost every part of the brain.

To see music’s effects on various parts of the brain, you can view this interactive infographic from a University of Central Florida music class. These effects may include:

  • enhancing frontal lobe activity to improve thinking and planning
  • increasing nerve tissue growth in the hippocampus to produce new neurons and improve memory
  • increasing dopamine in the nucleus accumbens to create a sense of well-being

How effective is music therapy with autism?

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

A 2017 clinical trial found music therapy produced no significant improvement in severe autism symptoms in children.

A 2018 clinical trial found 8 to 12 weeks of music therapy for school-aged autistic children improved:

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

More research is needed to really explore music therapy’s effects on autism.

A 2021 review suggests researchers begin using a consistent framework based on neuroimaging to more accurately measure how music therapy may affect the autistic brain, versus just using anecdotal accounts.

What kind of music is best for autism?

Music therapy for autistic people is often improvisational. This means the music is spontaneous and matches the temperament of the person playing.

Music therapists say music with a strong beat, simple structure, and easy lyrics do best.

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

  • “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles
  • “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
  • “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding

Let’s recap

Music therapy can help some autistic children and adults express themselves, communicate, interact socially, and focus. It may also help them magnify their unique talents.

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

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

To find music therapy lessons near you, you can try searching the American Music Therapy Association online therapist directory.