Music Therapy Services for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Funding Assistance Sources for Music Therapy Services
- Autism Society of Northern Virginia’s Mini-Grants
- Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children
- Virginia’s Individual and Family Support Program
- Rise for Autism Grant
Children on the Autism Spectrum often develop functional skills and exhibit behaviors that differ from children who are typically developing. Autism Speaks, HelpGuide, and the New York Department of Health categorize the various behavioral differences on their websites:
- Severe issues with sleep
- Variability of behavior
- No reaction to cold/heat
- Dislikes to be disturbed
- Occupation with self when left alone
Social Development Differences
- Appears disinterested and unaware of other people or what’s going on around them.
- Not responsive to other people’s facial expressions/feelings.
- Doesn’t know how to connect with others, play, or make friends.
- Prefers not to be touched, held, or cuddled.
- Doesn’t play “pretend” games, engage in group games, imitate others, or use toys in creative ways.
- Has trouble understanding or talking about feelings.
- Doesn’t seem to hear when others talk to him or her.
- Doesn’t share interests or achievements with others (drawings, toys).
- Lack of initiation of activity or social play.
- Lack of turn taking
- Delay or absence of spoken language.
- Avoids eye contact.
- Uses facial expressions that don’t match what he or she is saying.
- Does not pick up on other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures.
- Makes very few gestures (such as pointing). May come across as cold or “robot-like.”
- Reacts unusually to sights, smells, textures, and sounds. May be especially sensitive to loud noises.
- Abnormal posture, clumsiness, or eccentric ways of moving (e.g. walking exclusively on tiptoe).
- Repeats the same words or phrases over and over.
- Responds to a question by repeating it, rather than answering it.
- Refers to themselves in the third person.
- Uses language incorrectly (grammatical errors, wrong words).
- Has difficulty communicating needs or desires.
- Does not understand simple directions, statements, or questions.
Repetitive Behaviors/Inflexibility Differences
- Has difficulty adapting to any changes in schedule or environment (e.g. throws a tantrum if the furniture is rearranged or bedtime is at a different time than usual).
- Repeats or follows a rigid routine (e.g. insists on taking a specific route to school everyday).
- Obsessively lines things up or arranges them in a certain order.
- Preoccupation with a narrow topic of interest, often involving numbers or symbols (e.g. memorizing and reciting facts about maps, train schedules, or sports statistics).
- Spends long periods of time arranging toys in specific ways, watching moving objects such as a ceiling fan, or focusing on one specific part of an object such as the wheels of a toy car.
- Repeats the same actions or movements over and over again, such as flapping hands, rocking, or twirling (known as self-stimulatory behavior, or “stimming”). Some researchers and clinicians believe that these behaviors may soothe children with autism more than stimulate them.
Common Self-Stimulation Behaviors
- Hand flapping
- Rocking back and forth
- Spinning in a circle
- Finger flicking
- Head banging
- Staring at lights
- Moving fingers in front of the eyes
- Snapping fingers
- Tapping ears
- Lining up toys
- Spinning objects
- Wheel spinning
- Watching moving objects
- Flicking light switches on and off
- Repeating words or noises
It should be noted that the Autism Spectrum is very wide and that every individual is unique and has his or her own individualized areas of strengths and delays. For this reason, music therapists carefully take time to assess and document the strengths and delays of each individual with whom they work. The next step involves the music therapist writing therapeutic treatment goals based on the assessed areas of need of the individual.
Therapeutic Treatment Goals for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Below is a list of typical treatment goals music therapists target when working with children on the Spectrum:
Primary target areas: Social, Communication, Repetitive Behaviors
Secondary target areas: Academic, Physical/Motor, Cognitive
- Increase eye contact with another individual
- Increase turn taking and waiting
- Increase functional listening skills
- Increase cooperation with others
- Increase appropriate greetings and salutations
- Increase appropriate conversation with others
- Increase appropriate responses to social situations
Expressive Language Objectives
- Increase length of verbal expressions (one word, two words, three words…etc)
- Increase correct grammatical structure of verbal expressions
- Increase vocabulary
- Increase ability to articulate wants and needs
- Increase fluency
- Increase number of spontaneous communication
Receptive Language Objectives
- Increase ability to follow multi-step directions
- Increase comprehension of more complex sentence structures
- Increase appropriate response to varying music stimuli
- Increase transitioning ability
- Redirect self-stimming behaviors
Gross Motor Skills Objectives
- Increase balance
- Increase even gait when walking with a steady cadence
- Increase pace of ambulation
- Strengthen muscle tone in upper and lower extremities
Fine Motor Skills Objectives
- Increase finger dexterity in both hands
- Increase grasp of objects with both hands
- Increase pincer grasp capabilities in both hand.
- Increase focused attention
- Decrease impulsivity
- Increase memory retention and recall
- Increase functional academic skills such as reading, math, and concepts
What Do We Do in Our Sessions?
Next, the music therapist develops a treatment plan for each individual they are working with based on the identified therapeutic treatment goals from the initial assessment. A treatment plan involves the music therapist designing custom individualized music interventions to address the needs of the individuals they are working with. Below is a list of typical interventions we use with children on the Autism Spectrum as well as the therapeutic goals they are targeting:
- We use music-based social stories to teach appropriate social behaviors.
- We utilize musical improvisation to target expressive communication skills, self-expression, and emotional self-awareness.
- Rhythmic activities and moving to music are ways to redirect repetitive behaviors as well as helping with creativity, auditory processing, attention focus, and gross motor skills.
For example, learning a dance to a song strengthens and maintains ambulation as well as cognitive skills such as sequencing and memory.
- We incorporate children’s literature to target receptive language, expressive language, and literacy skills.
For example, adding a song to a book helps to keep a child engaged and paying attention while targeting the above mentioned skills.
- Use of singing enhances language acquisition, communication, and oral-motor skills.
For example, singing “Old MacDonald” allows us to target specific vowel phonemes. “Ee Ii Ee Ii Oo.”
- We play real musical instruments to improve fine and gross motor skills.
For example, playing the piano strengthens and maintains individual finger dexterity.
- We incorporate your child’s favorite songs as a means of maintaining their attention and motivating them as we teach and develop new skills.
- We repeat, vary, and modify our interventions until targeted objectives have been completed to ensure progress.
- We work with parents and give them resources to practice and reinforce our targeted objectives at home in-between music therapy sessions.
Tips and Strategies for Parents
Below is a list of music strategies for parents to utilize outside of music therapy sessions:
- Play an .mp3 of the songs used in music therapy with your child to help expedite learning of songs used for therapy sessions. This helps the child’s recognition of the song, which will increase engagement during the sessions.
- Dance with your child to music he or she enjoys
- Encourage your child to listen to music as he or she falls asleep
- Practice call and response with your child.
- Set up a 15 minute time block each day or every other day to go over the music skills reinforcement list prescribed by your music therapist
- Use music activities as a break or reward/reinforcer for on task behavior
Famous Musicians and Individuals on the Autism Spectrum
- Temple Grandin- American animal science doctor and Autism rights activist
- Phillipa “Pip” Brown (Ladyhawke)- Famous New Zealand indie artist
- Johnny Dean - British singer/songwriter
- James Durbin - Finalist on American Idol
- Travis Meeks -Singer/guitarist/songwriter for Days of the New
- Craig Nicholls - Australian singer/Frontman of the Vines
- Adam Young - founder and instrumentalist of Owl City
- Marty Balin - Jefferson Starship and Jefferson Aeroplane
- Tony DeBlois- American pianist who has Autism, Savant syndrome and is blind
- Jonathan Jayne - American Idol contestant
- Leslie Lemke - American musician
- Derek Paravicini - British musician
- Matt Savage - American jazz singer
- 50 Tyson -American rapper
Below is a list of resources for using music with individuals who are on the Autism Spectrum.
A great article explaining why music therapy helps with autism
A good article on why music helps facilitate the development and acquisition of language
Resources to help with speech, language, and reading
A great American Sign Language resource
A whole bunch of karaoke versions of popular kid songs
Great apps for children with Special Needs
Great apps specific to Autism
Music Therapy Research Bibliography
Adamek, M.S., & Darrow, A. (2010). Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In Music in Special Education (pp.193-214). Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association
Boso, M., Emanuele, E., Minazzi, V., Abbamonte, M., and Politi, P. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(7), 709-712.
Brownell, M. (2002). Musically adapted social stories to modify behaviors in students with autism: Four case studies. Journal of Music Therapy, 39 (2), 117-144.
Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2008). The effects of improvisational music therapy on the joint attention behaviors in autistic children: a randomized study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38 (9), 1758-1766.