Autism and Music Therapy
Autism is a neurological disability which affects the development of the brain as it relates to social interactions. In recent years, this disorder has gained attention in the American public due to the increase in the frequency of cases (3). Once considered a rare disorder, it is now found in 5 or 6 per 1000 people compared to one in every 2000 in the 1960s (1). Little is known about the cause of the disorder, however a myriad of strategies have been tested to mitigate its effects. One of these methods that has proved to be particularly successful is the use of music therapy.
In order to understand that positive impact that music has on the lives of autistic people, it is important to understand the symptoms associated with the disorder. Autism can range from very mild to very severe cases (1) resulting in a wide variety of symptoms associated with the disorder. Typically, these individuals are unable to build social relationships and communicate with others (both verbally and non-verbally) in the same capacity that non-autistic people can (2). Most often diagnosed by age three, signs begin in infancy. Children will often not respond to their caregiver’s touch and go limp when they reach to pick up the child rather than anticipating contact. As the child grows older, autistic children reach developmental milestones such as walking and talking either very early or very delayed (2).
Regardless of their developmental pattern as a toddler, by the time the child reaches school age, their inability to build social relationships becomes clear. One symptom of this is their inability to understand that perspectives other than their own exist or “theory of mind” (2). For example, when an autistic child is asked to show a picture to another child, the autistic child will often not turn the picture towards the other child because they do not understand that the other child has a perspective that is different from their own (2).
Accompanying their inability to form social relationships, those with autism frequently exhibit unusual and repetitive behaviors (1). For example, they will insist on a certain routine and become very upset if it changes. This can include food they have at certain meals, going to a destination the same route every time, spinning around in a circle, repeating a certain word or phrase and wearing the same clothes (2)(4).
Autistic people often have sensory impairments and are hypersensitive to certain sounds, textures, or smells (2). For example, they may perceive some people to have a much louder or high pitched voice than others. Additionally, they may not be able to filter out noises in crowds which leads to confusion and discomfort in these situations. Some demonstrate difficulty expressing themselves through speech resulting in impersonal grunts, shrieks, humming, echolalia, or complete mutism (4).
Music therapy has proven to be a very effective method in dealing with autism, allowing individuals to build social relationships and learn how to properly behavior in social situations. Interestingly, many with autism frequently show a heightened interest in music (5)(7). In fact, a disproportionate number are exceptionally talented in this area and have perfect pitch or play certain instruments with remarkable musicality and little or no formal training (4) (7). While they are unable to communicate verbally with others, music is an avenue for many autistic people to express themselves and communicate with others nonverbally (7).
As discussed above, the overarching symptom of all autistic individuals is their inability to connect socially with others. Music serves as the perfect liaison between the autistic person and others because it is a nonverbal (and for those with autism non-threatening) form of communication (4). In therapy sessions, musical games such as throwing ball back and forth to the tune of a song encourage the autistic person to socially interact with others. Likewise, holding an instrument or clapping near the eyes can promote eye contact (4). Music puts the individual at ease, allowing for strides in social interactions to follow.
Numerous families have noted the drastic improvement that music therapy caused for their autistic child (8)(9)(11). One specific method involves the use of therapeutic songs to teach children how to behave in certain social settings. Songs with lyrics to one of the child’s favorite songs are created that serve as directions for how to behave in certain social situations. For example, one boy in a study would make nonsense noises and yell at inappropriate times during dinnertime. Another girl would sneak into the kitchen looking for food out of boredom without asking her parents. After the children have heard the song for a number of days, they are able to repeat verses of the song. Additionally, they typically engaged in the undesirable behavior less frequently (11). What is it about music that makes these children more responsive to directions that are sung to them?
Although the causes of autism are largely unknown, it is apparent from numerous studies and anecdotal evidence that music has a positive impact for autistic individuals as well as their families. Music is an effective way for these people to engage in social interactions, communicate with others, and modify undesirable and disruptive behavior (11). Perhaps this unique response to music that so many autistic individuals express can provide clues as scientists strive to gain understanding of the cause of this disorder.
(3) Yazbak, Edward. “Autism in the United States: A Perspective” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons: 8.4 Winter 2003.
(8) “All One Girl Needed in her Struggle with Autism was Help from Mozart!” The Exceptional Parent: 36.4 April 2006.
(9) Allgood, Nicole. “Parents Perceptions of Family-based Group Music Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Music Therapy Perspectives: 23.2 Silver Spring: 2005.
(11) Pasiali, Vanessa. “The Use of Prescriptive Therapeutic Songs in a Home-Based Environment to Promote Social Skills Acquisition by Children with Autism: Three Case Studies.” Music Therapy Perspectives. 22.1 Silver Spring: 2004.