Music is food for the soul, but for someone with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other forms of learning disabilities, it can be so much more. With over 5 million children struggling with some form of learning disability,1 and countless others living with autism spectrum disorders that impact their social skills, there is a need to look beyond medication. Therapy that leverages the power of music shows promise, with studies revealing its ability to heal and support skill building in children and teens with developmental disorders. If you’ve dismissed it as much ado about nothing, here’s why music therapy is worth a second look.
What Is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is an approach to teaching that involves the use of all of the elements of music – harmony, melody, and rhythm. It intends to cultivate self-awareness, discipline, self-expression, and concentration in disabled children.2
A growing number of families across the United States are opening up to the benefits music therapy can have for young children and even teens. Sessions will typically involve free or structured improvisation, some element of a performance of songs/music and activities around this, a composition of instrumental music or songs, and listening experiences.3
Therapy that uses music or elements of music can help in the specific areas of communication or self-expression that can be a challenge for some. As various studies on the impact of music-based therapy on children and adults with ASD have found, it gets to the heart of the matter and improves performance and the development of social skills.4
1. Promotes Better Speech Development
For some children, speaking fluently – or even speaking at all – can prove to be a personal Everest. Language skills are a key ability most of us develop in our early childhood years. But not everyone has it easy. For those with developmental disorders, speech can present a particular problem. Left unchecked, this could spiral into social-emotional problems and cognitive problems, and bring on issues at school. As many as 50 to 75 percent of all children who have a language impairment problem experience behavioral and emotional problems, reason enough to provide early assistance and therapy to prevent this.5
One study of 3.5- to 6-year-olds who had delayed speech development used music therapy, alternating it with a spell of no music therapy, over several months. The results were heartening. The therapy helped improve their understanding of other people’s speech, improved cognitive structures, and showed results in their level of intelligence, action patterns, and phonological capacity. Additionally, there were clinically significant results in the area of communication and client–therapist relationships. This is of special importance given that forming relationships and sustaining them can be very difficult for children with this particular learning challenge.6
2. Boosts Social Skills
Recent studies have found that music therapy can improve social interaction, non-verbal and verbal communication skills, initiating behavior, and social-emotional reciprocity. It was also found to improve parent-child relationships.7
One study found that children who were moderately intellectually disabled benefited after just 8 weeks of music therapy. Researchers observed a test group of 5- to 10-year-olds who went through a 30-minute music therapy session twice a week during the study. Their vocalization, imitation of another person (copying actions and facial expressions, which helps with social interactions), and turn taking skills (waiting for a turn patiently, sharing, self-regulation, knowing when to take turns) all showed a marked improvement.8
A separate study further backed up the efficacy of music therapy in improving social competence, this time among children aged 6–17 years. The subjects all had social skill deficits and were given multiple music therapy sessions as a group, with programs that were age appropriate. Among other things, the sessions included improvisation, movement to music, and music performances.9
3. Improves Attention
Attention spans can be quite short for kids with autism and ADHD. One study found that improvisational music therapy works better to bring positive changes in autistic children’s nonverbal social communication as well as joint attention behavior (the use of shared gazes or gestures between the child and another person as they view or engage with something interesting).10
Those with ADHD have a lot to gain from music therapy. One group of researchers looked at the outcome of music therapy among adolescent boys with ADHD. They found that after going through this therapy, the boys had greater accuracy on the Synchronized Tapping Task, a common indicator for ADHD symptoms. In addition, other visible symptoms in the classroom also declined. This led the team to conclude that the changes were due to the overall improvement in multiple developmental areas as a result of the music therapy.11
Who Can Help?
Imparting music therapy takes special training and a unique set of skills. So, always go to a board certified therapist. As the American Music Therapy Association explains, this requires the person to complete, at the very least, a bachelor’s degree in music therapy. In addition, they should also have had at least 1200 hours of clinical training.12
Why Does It Work?
Music therapy is improvisational and involves the teacher working with the students to recognize what each of them responds to, as opposed to looking at the condition as one that needs to be cured through a prescription. For instance, if a child is bobbing back and forth, instead of asking him to sit still the teacher will consider the movement a steady beat and work with him.13
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy creates an environment in which you do not feel threatened. This puts the child at ease and helps cultivate relationships. Besides the learning opportunities it presents, music also provides an avenue for self-expression and communication. It is also effective in holding their attention and can be a great motivator.14
Most importantly, music really does have universal appeal. It can put a spring in your step, bring a smile to your face, and make you connect with an absolute stranger or a close friend over a shared delight. So why not use this fun and relaxed medium to do even more, for a child with a developmental challenge?
|↑1||Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children:National Health Interview Survey, 2009, CDC.|
|↑2, ↑13||‘What Can Music Do?’ Rethinking Autism Through Music Therapy. New York University.|
|↑3||James, Ruth, Jeff Sigafoos, Vanessa A. Green, Giulio E. Lancioni, Mark F. O’Reilly, Russell Lang, Tonya Davis et al. “Music therapy for individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review.” Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2, no. 1 (2015): 39-54.|
|↑4||Special Education: Music Therapy Research and Evidence-Based Practice Support, American Music Therapy Association.|
|↑5||Gallagher, Tanya M. “Interrelationships among children’s language, behavior, and emotional problems.” Topics in language disorders 19, no. 2 (1999): 1-15.|
|↑6||Groß, Wibke, Ulrike Linden, and Thomas Ostermann. “Effects of music therapy in the treatment of children with delayed speech development-results of a pilot study.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine 10, no. 1 (2010): 1.|
|↑7||Geretsegger, Monika, Cochavit Elefant, Karin A. Mössler, and Christian Gold. “Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder.” Cochrane Database Syst Rev 6, no. 6 (2014): CD004381.|
|↑8||Duffy, Barbara, and Ray Fuller. “Role of music therapy in social skills development in children with moderate intellectual disability.” Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities 13, no. 2 (2000): 77-89.|
|↑9||Gooding, Lori F. “The effect of a music therapy social skills training program on improving social competence in children and adolescents with social skills deficits.” Journal of music therapy 48, no. 4 (2011): 440-462.|
|↑10||Kim, Jinah, Tony Wigram, and Christian Gold. “The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviors in autistic children: a randomized controlled study.” Journal of autism and developmental disorders 38, no. 9 (2008): 1758-1766.|
|↑11||Rickson, Daphne J. “Instructional and improvisational models of music therapy with adolescents who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A comparison of the effects on motor impulsivity.” Journal of Music Therapy 43, no. 1 (2006): 39-62.|
|↑12, ↑14||Music Therapy as a Treatment Modality for Autism Spectrum Disorders, American Music Therapy Association.|