Do you know how many children in the United States have autism? According to the CDC, clinicians have diagnosed approximately 1 in 88 American children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).[i] Over the years, the number of individuals known to have ASD has drastically increased. As that number has grown, autism has gotten a lot of attention from parents, teachers, policymakers, and others.
Music therapists have also taken note of the rising prevalence of autism, and they have done much to promote the development and evaluation of various music interventions tailored to meet the needs of individuals with ASD. In part because of the work of music therapists, about 12% of ASD interventions include a musical component.[ii] While music is certainly a popular intervention choice, does it work? A growing body of research suggests that it does.
In its fact sheets about music therapy and autism, the American Music Therapy Association provides a number of possible explanations as to why music can so effectively help individuals with ASD. To begin with, it observes that because many people with ASD especially enjoy music and have great musical abilities, they are likely to have a positive experience when they learn new behaviors or skills through music.[iii] It also notes that music stimulates appropriate interactions by giving individuals who have ASD a universal form of nonverbal communication through which they can express themselves, as well as listen and respond to others.[iv] For these reasons and others, therapists hoping to help individuals with ASD become more comfortable with everyday tasks, like socializing, communicating, and regulating repetitive behaviors, find music an ideal mechanism for encouraging and facilitating change.
Research doesn’t just suggest why music interventions are well-suited for people with ASD; it also provides promising indications that music can increase their quality of life. According to Coast Music Therapy, a San Diego provider of music therapy services for children with ASD, “The most compelling evidence supporting the clinical benefits of music therapy lies in the areas of social-emotional responsiveness and communication, including increased compliance, reduced anxiety, increased speech output, decreased vocal stereotypy, receptive labeling, and increased interaction with peers.”[v] (To dig deeper and assess the outcomes of specific studies, you can look at Coast Music Therapy’s research page, which features relevant studies from 2002 to 2013.)
Although the evidence in favor of using music interventions for ASD has increased over time, we need additional research to clarify the value these interventions provide. A 2011 literature review assessing this topic observed that “the studies reviewed provide some initial although limited evidence about the efficacy of music interventions with children with autism.”[vi] In particular, the authors of the review felt a need for more specific information about exactly what interventions are most effective and how children with ASD can benefit from them.[vii]
While we may not have as much evidence as we would like from research studies, we fortunately have many rich anecdotal accounts from individuals who can attest to the positive results of music therapy based on personal experience or the experience of a loved one. This evidence alone demonstrates the need to continue exploring so that we can build a more conclusive case for support.
Finally, because of myriad personal preferences and circumstances, it’s impossible to make generalizations about how to structure a music therapy intervention for someone with ASD. Musical selections and activities can and should vary on an individual basis.[viii] To better illustrate how professionals can engage a variety of children through music, I’ll spend the next few weeks featuring the work of some therapists and teachers in the Pittsburgh region. I hope you enjoy reading about the wonderful resources available in our community!
[i] “Facts about ASDs.” CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
[ii] Srinivasan, Sudha M. and Anjana N. Bhat. “A review of ‘music and movement’ therapies for children with autism: embodied interventions for multisystem development.” Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 7:22 (2013). Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
[iii] “Music Therapy As a Treatment Modality for Autism Spectrum Disorders.” American Music Therapy Association. American Music Therapy Association, 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
[v] “Music and Autism Research.” Coast Music Therapy. Coast Music Therapy, 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.
[vi] Simpson, Kate and Deb Keen. “Music Interventions for Children with Autism: Narrative Review of the Literature.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41:11 (2011): 1507-1514. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
[viii] “Autism Spectrum Disorders: Music Therapy Research and Evidence Based Practice Support.” American Music Therapy Association. American Music Therapy Association, 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.