Music therapy is a complementary treatment option that can work in conjunction with more traditional therapies to treat autistic individuals.

This treatment can help a child with autism improve connections in their brain using a variety of techniques. Dancing, singing, and playing instruments can all improve motor functions and emotional regulation. Listening to certain types of music and interacting in music therapy groups can improve communication and social skills.

When music therapy is part of a child’s treatment early in life, the adjustments to brain function and behavior can carry on for the rest of their lives.

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is an approach to psychological and behavioral treatment that addresses physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs for individuals of all ages, from young children to older adults.

Music therapists are a type of therapist, meaning they need to be licensed and regulated by state governments. Most music therapists have graduate degrees, but some may receive a bachelor’s degree and then pursue board certification in this practice. With this level of professional qualification in a form of evidence-based treatment, music therapists can create a secure environment for their clients.

Music therapists create personalized treatment plans for individual clients, but they also frequently practice in group sessions.

Treatment with music therapy may involve: 

  • Singing songs.
  • Dancing to certain types of music.
  • Listening to certain types of music.
  • Learning to play an instrument.
  • Playing an instrument with others.
  • Writing lyrics.
  • Composing music.

The music therapist may choose one or two of these tasks as part of the overall treatment plan, or they may use several of these approaches across different therapy sessions.

The goal of music therapy is to strengthen certain skills in the client, first in the therapeutic context. Then, the therapist encourages transfer of these skills to other parts of life.

How Does Music Therapy Work for People With Autism?

One of the main focuses of music therapy is better communication. This therapy aims to support those who have had trouble expressing themselves in words by giving them other avenues of expression. This means that music therapy should work well for people who have autism, as one of the leading struggles for autistic individuals is communication trouble.

Ultimately, music therapy should enhance the quality of the client’s life by honing communication abilities. This helps to improve their interpersonal relationships, such as their relationships with their therapists, their family members, and their peers.

Music therapy typically works as a complementary treatment alongside a range of other interventions. For people with autism, music therapy may be used in association with a behavior therapy like applied behavior analysis (ABA). Music therapy won’t take the place of a primary treatment like ABA, but it can complement the overall treatment approach.

Some research shows that music therapy has many potential benefits, such as:

  • Capturing and maintaining attention, which can reduce anxiety and improve cognition.
  • Reducing negative or self-stimulatory responses.
  • Increasing participation in socializing through positive behaviors.
  • Offering a method for nonverbal individuals to express themselves.
  • Assisting in the development of some verbal skills.
  • Improving interpersonal reciprocity in shared play, including listening and taking turns.
  • Identifying and appropriately expressing emotions.
  • Integrating multiple senses like sound, touch, and sight, which some people with autism struggle with.
  • Improving gross and fine motor skills through organized, rhythmic sounds that inspire certain body responses, like dancing.
  • Encouraging attempts at new tasks in a more flexible framework.

Approaches to Music Therapy

Music therapy should only be conducted by a licensed, certified music therapist, just like other types of behavioral treatment including ABA therapy.

The therapist must understand how the brain reacts to change emotions, behaviors, and even physical reactions with certain types of music, certain musical instruments, or certain ways of interacting with music like singing or dancing. The therapist can then use established guidelines to create a treatment plan that can support the growth of positive, new connections in an autistic child’s brain.

The most preferred music therapy approaches that help children with autism include:

  • Behavioral approach to music therapy. This approach examines the overt changes in the child’s behavior in response to music, which occur because of specific practices and due to different types of interaction with music.
  • Sensory integration approach to music therapy. This approach helps children with autism who are overly responsive to stimuli, under-responsive, or display sensory-seeking behaviors to manage their physical reactions.
  • Creative music therapy. This approach involves improvising and composing music to stimulate motor skills, cognition, memory, and sociability.

Besides these three approaches, there are dozens of schools of music therapy. If you are curious about what might benefit your child the most, work with your child’s pediatrician, neurologist, psychologist, or behavior therapist to get a referral to a music therapist who is experienced with your child’s specific autism symptoms.

Studies Show That Music Therapy Works as an Early Intervention for Children With Autism

Like many forms of therapy designed to help people with autism, music therapy appears to work best as an early intervention. Children on the autism spectrum typically receive a diagnosis before reaching 4 years old.

At the point of diagnosis, doctors and parents can begin to build an overall treatment plan. While therapies like ABA therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy might make up the bulk of the treatment program, complementary therapies like music therapy can round out the overall plan.

Several studies show that music therapy works to “rewire” the brains of children with autism, helping them to reduce maladaptive behaviors and improve interactions with family and friends, as reported by parents. For example, one study found that 8 to 12 weeks of music intervention changed intrinsic brain connectivity in school-aged children who were on the autism spectrum.

There were 51 children participating in the study, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, who had never received music therapy before. The children’s brain connections were measured with an fMRI, which can examine various specific parts of brain reactions. While positive behavioral changes were seen in the children, especially as reported by parents, there were increased connections between brain areas responsible for some motor skills and processing sounds.

However, there were also decreased connections between visual and auditory processing areas. This appeared to correlate with improvements in social communication, so it may have involved adjustments to processing several stimuli at once.

Music therapy may work well for sensory integration as well. In a survey of 434 music therapists, 32.3% reported that they prefer to use sensory integration approaches to help children with autism, and 43.4% of the 434 respondents reported that they found this approach extremely effective; 38.3% reported that they found it very effective.

Costs of Music Therapy

The cost of music therapy can vary a bit based on where your child receives this treatment. If it is part of their special education curriculum, it will be covered in any administrative school costs. If you find a separate music therapist, you may pay between $70 and $150 per hour, with additional costs associated with intake and treatment plan creation.

Health insurance will usually not specifically cover this treatment. If you can find a way to integrate music therapy with other types of evidence-based therapy, like ABA therapy, you may get some coverage while paying some of the costs out of pocket. Some insurance companies are beginning to offset the costs of some creative therapies, such as music therapy, so inquire with your specific provider regarding any potential coverage.

Choosing Music Therapy for Your Child

When used as a complementary treatment, along with other evidence-based medical interventions, music therapy appears to work well for young children with autism. Adding it to your child’s treatment plan could help them to manage sensory issues, motor skills, and communication.

In addition, many children simply enjoy music therapy. They are able to build musical ability while acquiring so many other skills that are particularly important for autistic children to develop.