Music Therapy for Children with Autism

April 28th, 2007

(The following article is written by Rachel Brummett, a student in the Music Therapy program at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri)

Now I’m sure some of you may be wondering “What is music therapy, anyway? Is it just music education for people with special needs? Is it a form of special education incorporating fun music activities? Is it a type of psychotherapy?” The truth is music therapy is none of those things. The best way I know how to explain it is that music therapy is a type of treatment for all ages and all types of clients that uses musical methods to meet non-musical goals. Music education is different. It helps a person in many ways, but the purpose of it is to increase in musical abilities and understanding. With music therapy, however, the musical interventions used are designed to increase the client’s physical abilities, cognitive abilities, social abilities, and emotional abilities, whatever it is that that particular client needs.

Research is being done every day by music therapists around the country and around the world, testing music therapy in different settings with different populations. And the findings are almost always the same. Music therapy is an extremely effective form of treatment, especially with children who have autism spectrum disorders. As we all know every child with autism is different. They all have a different range of symptoms, characteristics, personality traits, and skills, just like all of us have very different qualities. But there are some goals that most of your children share with one another. One recurring issue that I have seen with my young clients who have autism is that most of them are easily over-stimulated. Maybe you’ve seen this in your own home. If there are too many distractions (i.e. if the TV is on, if multiple people are talking, or if your in a crowded area), your child may find it impossible to tune things out. Even if the lighting or the temperature in a certain area can distract an autistic child from the task at hand. His brain can’t decide what to focus on, so typically he will just tune everything out and focus on a self-stimulating activity such as flapping his hands or rocking back and forth, something repetitive and simple that will keep his mind on something other than the overwhelming noise around him. One reason music therapy is so effective with these children is because it gives them a chance to focus, a chance for their ears to be stimulated by something simple, something they can understand. Now this doesn’t mean that all music is healthy and beneficial for this population. If the music is even a little too loud, or if there are too many unpredictable patterns in the rhythm and in the harmonies, children with autism may be over-stimulated by it and tune it out. This will be an important thing to remember later on when I share a few simple music therapy techniques that you can use at home. Music will be reinforcing to your child only if you carefully select the right music and the right volume level, something melodic and predictable with a solid repetitive structure. Another common goal for children with autism is communication. Listening is often difficult for these children because, once again, the environment around them is too stimulating and the words aren’t stimulating enough. Even when there are minimal distractions in a certain environment, it’s hard for children to focus only on what you are saying. To make sure you have your child’s attention, it helps to encourage and reward attentive behavior so that it becomes a pattern and helps your child listen and communicate. Nonverbal communication skills such as good eye contact, appropriate facial expression, and proper voice inflection can also be rewarded musically and developed using musical activities. For younger kids, sometimes it helps to hold both of their hands, and sing their name until they look at you. The sing songy tone catches their attention more readily than speaking or shouting, and holding the hands or the knees makes them more likely to look straight ahead and make eye contact.

There are several fun and rewarding ways to use music therapy in the home. The simplest technique that can be used with children with autism is contingent music, or conditional music. The first step is to define a specific behavior exhibited by your child that you would like to decrease or a desirable behavior that you would like to increase. For example, during mealtimes, maybe your child gets distracted and exhibits quite a bit of out-of-seat behavior. The child’s favorite music can be used to reinforce in-seat behavior. You can play a CD of positive, enjoyable music at a reasonably low volume level when the child sits down to eat, and if the child gets out of her seat at any time without permission, turn off the music for about ten seconds. Explain to the child that if she gets back in her seat and stays there, she can listen to her music. Eventually, the child will not want her music interrupted and may sit and behave throughout an entire meal. Soon this behavior will become a pattern, and the background music can become gradually softer with each meal. If the in-seat behavior continues at the same rate, the music may be faded out completely, and the behavior will stay the same. Another way to use music as a reward is to use the token economy system. I work in a learning center during the school year that educates children with various developmental and learning disabilities, and an adolescent group I worked with last year gave me quite a few behavioral challenges. Something that turned out to be very effective for them, however, was the Minutes System. Every time one of them was attentive while the group was rowdy, or one of them made an especially sincere comment, or when one of them encouraged the person next to them, that person received a bright orange token which we called a minute. On the other hand, if a child disrupted the group a minute would be taken away. At the end of the session, minutes were totaled on a sheet of paper and announced at the beginning of the next session. If someone achieved 15 minutes, that person could “cash in” the tokens and receive a 15 minute music lesson on his/her instrument of choice. A similar system can be used in the home. Tokens are given for good behavior, taken away for bad behavior, and for a certain “price”, various rewards can be implemented. The reward doesn’t necessarily have to be musical, but it needs to be something that the child enjoys and something that gives him or her a sense of accomplishment that might not be experienced otherwise. If you are musically inclined, by all means, a music lesson would be reinforcing and a good bonding experience for the two of you. If not, let the reward be the child’s favorite food or a chance to improvise on the drums or the black keys on the piano for 15 minutes. The reason I suggest using just the black keys of the piano is because you can’t go wrong. Almost any pattern played on just these keys will sound decent and give your kids an incredible sense of accomplishment.

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