Developing Social Skills: Music Therapy in Autism Treatment
Social skills are often a key element of Autism treatment, and music therapy is a powerful way to develop them.
As a music therapist my Autism treatment goals fall under the standard domains of cognition, social skills, motor development, emotional regulation, and/or communication. Among these domains, social skills has always been a point of fascination for me. I don’t know if it’s because of the types of clients I’ve worked with, or because I feel that social development is a springboard for many other skills. I think it’s a little of both.
About half of the clients we see are somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. With Autism comes a relatively consistent deficit in social skills. We have a range of clients from those who need help to simply notice another person in the room, to others who need to learn how to carry on a conversation or read social cues. I have found music therapy in Autism treatment to be not only fun, but hugely successful in helping these individuals develop the skills they need for everyday interaction.
I use a wide variety of interventions to address social skills, and they are always based on the needs of the individual or the present group. I’ve included some samples below of what these interventions may entail.
I may ask participants to:
- Pass instruments back and forth or in a circle.
- Share instruments. I may have one client hold the drum while the other plays, then switch.
- Engage in movement games in which participants dance with a partner, copy a partner’s moves, or simply engage in free movement play while I create the live music and include changes for moving fast/slow, etc.
- Stand around one instrument such as a gathering drum and make music as a group. This helps participants become more aware of others in their environment
- Create songs specific to social skills such as conversations, greeting peers, or different aspects of interaction (such as sharing, saying yes/no, etc.)
- Sing hello and goodbye songs to teach appropriate greetings
- Take turns playing a certain instrument and listen to their peers as they play
What is it about music therapy that is so helpful in developing these social skills in Autism treatment? I believe music therapy is powerful because of the ease of working in groups, the predictable and memorable nature of music, and enjoyable shared experiences.
Ease of Working in Groups
By nature, music lends itself well to the group setting. It fills a room with a unified experience and can be a strong catalyst for grabbing a child’s attention (which I need to have before I can really work on social skills).
If a child has social needs the first thing I look for in our assessment is to determine whether the group or individual setting is best for that individual. More often than not (except in the case of severe isolation or risk of overstimulation) I recommend the group setting for Autism treatment. The most obvious benefit of the group setting is that the child (or adolescent) is learning to interact with same-age peers instead of solely with the therapist. For some, they may initially need individual support to develop skills such as joint attention and social referencing, but I find that for many kids these skills can be well addressed in the group setting (as long as there is enough 1:1 support where needed). Seeing other peers do the same thing the child is supposed to be doing can be very motivating.
Because I only have two hands and my Social Skills groups may have anywhere from 2-5 participants, I will occasionally ask parents to join in sessions if their child needs additional support. This support may be in the form of physical prompts to play instruments or helping the child physically stay with the group (instead of wandering the room). As I see a child beginning to acquire a certain skill I will ask the parent to fade the prompts and watch their child develop independence. The participants begin to learn from each other over time, which is a beautiful sight to see.
The Predictable (and Memorable) Nature of Music
Another reason why music therapy can help develop social skills in Autism treatment is because of the predictable nature of music. Once a routine has been established in the music therapy setting and the child knows what to expect, they often begin to spontaneously develop social skills within the intervention (as long as the intervention is geared toward social interaction).
For example, I created an intervention during one session with a group of two 4-year old boys in which they took turns jumping on the trampoline and playing the drum. I sang a song while they were each at their respective station, then changed the music at a predictable time and signaled for them to “switch places”. At the beginning of the intervention they both needed full prompts from their parents to successfully make the switch. After 5-10 minutes, however, they were able to complete the switch almost independently. The amazing thing was that once they understood the game, they both began to spontaneously interact. As they became comfortable with the structure, they began watching each other. This was a big deal for these boys as they both had goals to observe peers in their environment. They even began to approach each other during the switch to hand off the drum mallets, and did this independently! The music itself provided a predictable pattern which gave them comfort, predictability, and space to develop those skills. It also made the game interesting enough that they wanted to keep going for 20 minutes. And if you know 4 year olds, that’s a long time!
Enjoyable, Shared Experiences
Music therapy is often an enjoyable experience for clients. Almost every client I’ve ever worked with finds immense pleasure in creating music. There is something unique and magical about creating sound that has never been made before, and to do so in a group environment can be as enjoyable as it is effective. Clients in Autism treatment often begin to listen to each other more closely (especially as we do turn taking interventions with instruments), watch each other as they share instruments, and discover new patterns for interaction as they pass an instrument back and forth or in a circle. Having a musical environment with favorite songs, novel instruments, and engaging improvisation provides a beautiful foundation for exploration of their environment and interaction with their peers.
I have one client with Asperger’s who has social phobia. He cannot bring himself to interact verbally with his peers as it causes high levels of stress and overstimulation. However, in the music therapy setting he has developed the ability to interact musically with his peers. He plays instrument solos, sings songs, engages in vocal improvisation and turn taking, and will even engage in movement/dancing games on occasion. Overall, his level of interaction in the music therapy setting, although primarily nonverbal, is a step up from what he is able to do in other settings. Of course the intent of music therapy is to help him generalize these skills so he is able to interact in other settings, but for now the role of our group work together is to help him develop the confidence and patterns he needs for basic interaction.
As I mentioned, this is just a glimpse into why music therapy is helpful in social skill development in Autism treatment. If you have other ideas (or questions!) on how and why music is such an effective tool, please feel free to comment or post on our facebook page. I would love to hear your thoughts!