How Music Therapy Helps Children With Autism Be More Social

Takeaway: Music therapy can bypass your child’s usual autistic defences, bringing out her joyful, creative side. But, for this to happen, the therapist must be able to build trust, work towards clearly-defined goals, and improvise on the go. So, we parents need to find therapists with the right balance of intuition and training to help our children. 

Autism is a complex developmental difference that varies subtly from child to child.

Autism describes a group of related behaviours and traits we see in children with a certain kind of brain difference. Typically, these children struggle to communicate, have repetitive behaviours and routines, and process sensory input (sounds, smells, colours, etc.) differently. But autistic traits vary, so we need to understand and respect each child’s unique experience, when helping them. Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.

This spectrum of possible traits means there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting children with autism.

Because of autism’s nuances, specialists choose from a range of techniques when helping. For instance, there’s the behavioural approach which uses positive reinforcement to gradually nudge children away from undesirable behaviour and towards more desirable ones. (E.g., complimenting/rewarding a child if she makes eye contact for more than a few seconds.) Then there’s the developmental approach which involves learning more about a child’s interests/hobbies and using these to connect with her. So, a therapist might play alongside her, build a relationship (by gesturing, making requests, taking turns, etc.), and use this common ground to help improve her communication skills. But no single therapy is better than all the others. And therapists choose their approach based on a child’s specific needs.

Recently, therapists have added another approach – music therapy – to their toolkits.

Therapists have found that listening to music, creating music, and playing music-based games can help children tackle physical, mental, emotional, and social challenges. This ‘music’ therapy works by tapping into parts of our brain that words, reasoning, and logic can’t reach. For instance, a child who can’t talk about what’s bothering her might be willing to clap along to a song. And that simple, rhythmic, non-verbal self-expression could be the start of a therapeutic healing journey.

Research now shows that music therapy can change brain biology.

Autistic brains are easily overstimulated, making it harder for children to control their actions and emotions. But music helps dampen the ‘overconnectivity’ of certain brain areas. For example, it modulates activity in the subcortical hippocampus (a region that controls learning and memory) and the thalamus (the brain’s information relay station). So, music therapy can potentially change brain biology – improving a child’s focus, attention, body awareness (kinaesthesia), and anxiety levels. For instance, some children get anxious and overwhelmed when transitioning from one physical space to another. But if they were to match their movements to a rhythmic beat, an anxiety-provoking transition would become a mini dance they’d look forward to. In effect, the rhythm of sound can regulate the rhythm of thinking and information processing.

Crucially, music therapy can improve a child’s social and communication skills.

Music has an uncanny ability to improve communication. Think of how the members of a band coordinate their instruments to produce beautiful music. The result is a complex, creative exchange, but it begins with a band member’s simple, non-verbal interaction with her instrument. Similarly, complex changes in a child’s social behaviour can begin with a simple interaction between her and a piece of music from music therapy. For instance, a music therapist might notice an anxious, isolated child making random, high-pitched vocal sounds. If the therapist then played a song, the child might try changing her vocal pitch to match it. This intuitive, creative experiment could improve her confidence, pushing her to try something more. And a skilled therapist would use moments like these to nudge her into gradually converting her random vocal sounds into spoken words. She might even bring other children into future sessions to sing, play instruments, and enjoy music together. Music would become a bonding activity to break down barriers in potentially-uncomfortable social situations.

Of course, the whole process needs to be structured and goal-oriented.

Music therapy is designed to be free-flowing, spontaneous, and fun, but it’s also well-structured. The therapist will first assess your child and set goals based on her needs. And she’ll regularly evaluate the programme to ensure it’s addressing the right goals. Each therapy session will last for about 30 minutes to an hour, with the therapist using activities like songwriting, playing instruments, listening to music, and dancing to help build communication skills. She’ll need to improvise freely – letting your child take the lead – and will choose follow-up activities based on how your child responds. For example, she might notice your child isn’t yet keen on creating music but enjoys listening to music instead. So, she might sing a short, improvised song about social behaviours like taking turns or making eye contact. Conversely, some children want to get hands-on and might respond better to playing an instrument. The therapist’s challenge is to create a musical experience that helps her connect with your child. And she can then channel this connection into developing specific academic, behavioural, physical, and self-care/occupational skills.

This therapist-child connection is the most critical part of the process.

Music therapists regularly describe how unexpectedly their clients transform over time. For instance, one therapist describes how a 10-year-old client initially made almost no eye contact but blossomed over the next few months – smiling, making eye contact, dancing to music, and even playing notes on the piano. But all this is possible only when there’s a strong therapist-child connection. And the therapist also needs to know how to combine music therapy with other, more traditional therapies. Feel free to reach out to us for more information about this, and to find the right therapist for your child. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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