Music Therapy and Autism

Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and in a variety of ways. Typically, people with autism have a lack of or delay in spoken language, repetitive motor or language behaviors, little or no eye contact, lack of interest in socializing, inability to make-believe, and fixation on parts of objects. People with autism have difficulty processing sensory input from their environment. Music therapy can be quite useful in helping your child manage his environment.

Music therapy is useful because music is rhythmic, structured, and predictable. Rhythm refers to the beat in music, like when you tap your toe in time to a song, and to the pattern of notes within that beat. Music that has a steady beat can match the rhythm of the motoric (i.e. hand-flapping or rocking) behaviors of a child with autism. Matching his rhythm can help the child notice and attend to other people and things in his environment. I had a client who jumped around the room and ran from the session space frequently. He rarely responded to anything I said or sang. When I started playing a drum in time to his jumping, he looked at me–the beginning of an interaction with me.

The often-repetitive patterns in music also attract attention, particularly in children with autism who seem to hyper focus on patterns at times. A client who repeated the same phrase from a TV show over and over again stopped, looked at me, and listened when I started singing a familiar song with a repetitive rhythmic pattern in it. This extended our relationship into something more meaningful, as he began connecting with me.

The structure that music provides is comforting to children with autism. My clients know that when I sing the hello song, music time begins and continues until the end of the goodbye song because I set up that structure in the session. They can engage in playing an instrument until the song ends, because music has a beginning, moves through time, and ends, with clear harmonic cues to each part. To understand the structure in music, think about the song, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (the melody goes up)
How I wonder what you are (the melody goes back down)
Up above the world so high (starting high and going down)
Like a diamond in the sky (repeats the previous melodic phrase)
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (exact repetition of the first part of the song)
How I wonder what you are (the song sounds finished)

Structure helps a child with autism know when something begins and when it ends. Structure also helps a child know what to expect in the middle. Music helps create this structure without using lots of words or explanations that may be difficult to understand. It also helps create predictability. If you use the same song each night when your child is getting ready for bed, then he will come to understand that when that song is played, it’s time to get ready for bed. He hears the song and can then predict that you will next say, “It’s time to get ready for bed,” and he can also predict that after you say that, you will help him go through the steps necessary for getting ready for bed. He what will happen during that song and can be reasonably sure that something else he was not expecting will happen.

So try using music to provide structure and predictability and see the peace and harmony that will be created in your home. If you need some help figuring out what kind of music to use, contact me.