What Can Music Therapy Do? (Autism Edition)
What can music therapy do for kids with Autism? With a focus on emotional regulation, social skills, language development, and cognitive development, we discover new strengths and help them do things they may not have done before. It’s pretty amazing.
Here are just a few of the responses we see when we use music therapy with kids with Autism.
Express difficult emotions in a safe, productive way
Music offers tons of great opportunities for kids to express emotions, and this primarily happens through playing instruments. This may include playing a drum when they are angry, playing the piano quietly when they are sad, or running around from one instrument to the next when they feel anxious–all while the Music Therapist provides musical support to guide, empathize with and/or contain the expression.
Music often helps us better understand what the child is experiencing because we can hear it, and they can hear it too. It can be satisfying and empowering for the child as they finally find a way to express what they feel without words or acting out.
Teach various emotions more effectively
Pairing various types of music with pictures representing emotions has been shown to dramatically increase emotional understanding for children with Autism. The reason for this is because music accesses emotion centers in the brain, even if those centers develop differently for a child with Autism.
This means that using music to teach about emotions is both effective and successful.
Recognize their own emotions
It can be difficult for a child with Autism to stop and recognize what they are feeling in any given moment (heck it can be hard for adults!). But music can really help. When kids learn to identify which song or type of music is the “right” one for the moment, it gives us insight into what they might be feeling.
Identify coping skills for difficult emotions
Instead of lashing out when they are frustrated and hitting themselves or others, music can help teach safe and appropriate coping skills. One way we do this is by teaching those skills within a song. Because music can help the child first recognize the emotion, a certain song can become a “go to” when a child feels frustrated and help them feel like people understand them.
We can even create songs and lyrics that guide the child in what to do when they feel like hitting. This may include lyrics such as “ask for a break” or “take deep breaths”. The benefit is that it’s infinitely easier to remember lyrics, and the child will be more likely to remember what to do before reaching a crisis phase.
Many kids with Autism want to engage with their peers but they simply don’t know how. Group music therapy can set up opportunities for the child to be successful with social interactions and thereby gain confidence in social situations. This often includes playing instruments with a group, listening to peers play, playing solos, directing a musical ensemble, offering ideas when writing songs as a group, playing instruments together with a peer or a group of peers, etc. Music is a very social experience, but because it does not require talking, most kids can learn to be successful and move forward with confidence.
Gain control over impulses
We work on impulses in music therapy through active music and movement as well as by teaching concepts through song.
We teach through music by having kids start and stop their instruments or movements, change their movements when they hear a certain musical pattern on the piano, play certain instruments only when they hear a certain cue (ie. the word “sunshine”), or playing or moving slowly when the music is slow. Music clarifies instructions and can make the process of following directions and controlling impulses fun and rewarding. This practice can then translate to other settings as well as the child practices self control.
We can also teach the concept of impulse control through song as we help kids understand boundaries, how to manage their bodies, and how to listen. Anything can be taught in a song, and the child is more likely to remember how to respond in certain situations when they’ve heard a song repeatedly that teaches them what to do.
Feel More Comfortable with Peers and Decrease Social Anxiety
I’ve worked with kids who could hardly tolerate being in the same room as peers because of social anxiety. In music therapy we encourage kids to work through this social anxiety by playing instruments with their peers.
Because music doesn’t require talking, kids usually feel more comfortable engaging with peers through music. The therapist can then support their progress gradually through music games, movement, trading instruments, conducting the group, or even writing songs as a group.
I’ve seen amazing transformations as kids begin to feel comfortable interacting with peers through music. It can set the foundation for real friendship.
Speech and Language
Improve clarity of speech
Singing slows down language and can make it easier to understand what others are saying. It also makes it easier to articulate when words are put to song. A Music Therapist can support clarity of speech in conjunction with speech therapy by incorporating singing and other music-based games. Music helps motivate the child who may be resistant to or frustrated by working on language.
Encourage Speech Production
Music accesses language centers on the left side of the brain and also lights up an area on the right side responsible for singing lyrics. Some kids who do not speak may find it easier to sing, or even to speak words to a certain rhythm. I’ve worked with kids who couldn’t get more than one word out at a time, then when put a phrase to rhythm they were able to say 5-6 words at a time.
Music works in pretty remarkable ways when it comes to speech and language!
Cognitive Development (Learning, Attention, and Memory)
We can all rattle off lyrics from our favorite songs, and of course we all learned a random collection of 26 letters because they were put to a simple melody. Music is just that way. Putting information to a melody and learning it in the form of a song makes everything easier to remember because of the way our brain stores musical information.
This is true across the lifespan–think of someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, where music is usually the last thing to go. Music sinks deep into the mind and body, and we use that intentionally as music therapists.
Music has a big impact on learning and retention. Not only does music help kids remember concepts when put into a song, it can also make the whole process of learning more enjoyable. Music lights up emotion centers in the brain, and using upbeat music to teach concepts can make the whole process more engaging and increase the child’s chance of success tenfold.
We find over and over that when kids engage in musical games, play musical instruments, or play with musical toys that their attention span lengthens. Not only is the music interesting, but knowing that they are playing through time to get to the end of a song makes it so much easier to focus, simply because they know what to expect. I’ve seen kids go from throwing anything that comes their way within 1-2 seconds to sitting at a drum and playing with me for 5-10 minutes.
Want to see what music therapy can do for your child with Autism? Schedule your free trial session today to see for yourself!