What is music therapy for autism

What is Music Therapy for Autism?

Music therapy for autism is a technique to support individuals to build skills, lower anxiety and develop communication skills. People with autism, including Aysh, often show an interest in music. It seems to motivate and engage even when other things are not effective.

Listening to and playing music can also help those who react badly to certain sounds. Aysh, for example, is super-sensitive to particular sounds and this can cause intense meltdowns and high anxiety. However, he likes to make a lot of noise and music is a great outlet for him to do this.

What are the benefits of music therapy for autism?

It doesn’t take a scientific degree to see the benefits Aysh has had from music therapy. But just to be sure, I have checked the research and found a huge list of benefits of using music therapy in autism interventions.

Benefits include improvements in:

  • appropriate social behaviour
  • attention to tasks
  • vocalisation
  • verbalisation, gesture, and vocabulary comprehension
  • communication and social skills
  • body awareness and coordination
  • self-care skills; and reduced anxiety
  • parent-child bonds

Social behaviour

Since starting music therapy, we have found Aysh appears to better manage his behaviours in a social setting. During a music session, he stays focused and on task for up to an hour – which is rare outside of the music studio.

Communication

Music therapy can give people who can’t easily communicate a way of communicating and interacting. Instead of using words to communicate, they can instead use a range of musical activities – singing, playing instruments, songwriting and listening to music.

Aysh enjoys playing with words. He uses scripts from tv shows and movies and turns them into songs. It is a great way for him to have some fun with language, rather than it being such a challenge for him.

Learning new skills

Music therapists can use music-based activities to teach new skills. Some of the skills that might be taught in a music session include:

  • Turn taking
  • Giving eye contact
  • Following instruction
  • Fine and gross motor skills (eg hand movements or body movements)
  • And of course, there is the added benefit of potentially learning a new instrument!

These things are still a work in progress for Aysh, but he is definitely improving.

Check out my other posts about Aysh here.

History of music therapy in autism

As an ‘academic’, I am always pretty careful to learn what I can about a new therapy before we send Aysh in. And I was pleased to see that music therapy has a long history with children with disability.

Music therapy was first used for children with special needs in the early to mid-1900s in the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s it became more popular in the United Kingdom. The Australian Music Therapy Association was formed in 1975 and continues to support the industry.

Now with the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, there are more and more services popping up all over the place.

Stages of a music therapy program

Music therapy typically involves the following stages:

  • Assessment
  • Goal setting
  • Activities
  • Evaluation

Assessment

It is important with any intervention that there is a good understanding of the person’s needs. I initially attended sessions with Aysh so that I could introduce his communication style, his quirks and possible triggers for behaviour. This information means it is tailored to Aysh’s needs and ensures he gets the most out of it. It also means we can link what he is also doing with his other therapists.

Goal-setting

Goal setting has become more important under NDIS because the funding that is provided is matched to specific goals. We are able to then find services to meet those goals. For example, one of Aysh’s goals is to increase his ability to follow instruction (this will be important if he is to take on any form of a job in the future – but more on that another time). This is a goal that can be supported by his speech pathologist, his occupational therapist and through music therapy. His support workers also work on this when they spend time with him.

Activities

Now that Aysh’s music teacher knows him a little better and understands his goals, he can design activities to meet Aysh’s specific needs. He can allow Aysh enough free reign to keep him interested and engaged, and balance this with instruction. Activities and mini-goals for each instrument are set up so he can follow Aysh’s lead from guitar to drums and on to keyboard.

Evaluation

Aysh’s music teacher regularly checks in with me to report how he is progressing. We take video of his sessions most weeks so we can track his progress. His teacher is also great at celebrating Aysh’s small achievements, like learning a new drumming technique or adjusting his grip on the guitar. By regularly tracking Aysh’s progress, we can evaluate how effective the sessions are and if we need to make any changes.

Music therapy in small groups

Music therapy sessions can be one on one or in a group. Aysh prefers one on one and refers to this as his “band”. We have talked about introducing others to challenge Aysh and encourage him to work with others. But we will need to make sure we choose the right peers so that it doesn’t become a negative experience.
For now he is quite happy with his small band – especially since he usually dictates the session!

How long is a music therapy session?

Children typically attend once a week, for about 20-50 minutes. The duration of the therapy depends on children’s needs.

Aysh’s sessions go for an hour. It is a long session and he is often tired afterwards. But for us it takes about 40mins each way to travel to the session so we wanted to make it worthwhile. This is also why he is given large parts of the session to ‘free-play’ as it helps keep him engaged.

Where can I find music therapy for autism?

Music therapy in Adelaide

No Boundaries Music School

This is Aysh’s music school. They are registered with NDIS as a provider of Capacity Building supports (therapy) and state that their mission is to use our passion for teaching musical instruments to change the lives of people dealing with autism, building self esteem, enabling inclusion, developing talents and most of all having FUN!

Natalie Oliveri

Natalie works across Adelaide. She has a Masters in Music Therapy and is registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association. She is also an NDIS registered provider. Natalie offers 1:1 sessions to participants of all ages.

Music Therapy 4 Kids Adelaide

What is music therapy for autismMusic Therapy 4 Kids offer sessions for children (including those under 5). Their sessions are between 30 minutes and an hour and parents are asked to attend and participate. They offer individual and group sessions. Therapists are experienced and many have expertise in autism and additional needs.

Music therapy in Sydney

Giant Steps

At Giant Steps, music therapists work closely with other therapists (eg speech and OT) to support children’s development. They have a structured curriculum with a focus on developing social and communication skills through music. There are services in Sydney and Melbourne.

Sydney Music Therapy

Sydney Music Therapy is a private music therapy practice based on the Lower North Shore in Castle Cove, serving individuals of all ages and abilities; offering both individual and group therapy sessions.

Music therapy in Melbourne

Music Therapy Wellness Clinic

Music Therapy Wellness Clinic supports individuals on their journey toward health, wellbeing and functionality. Suitable for people with a range of needs from birth to end-stage life. They are registered for NDIS (Capacity Building supports).

Yellow Door Kids Therapy Hub

Yellow Door Kids Therapy Hub is a friendly organisation that provides compassionate, inclusive, and accessible services for children and families. Music therapists work as part of a broader team off allied health services.

Finding a music therapist: what to look for

While it is important to consider accredited and registered services, I think there are some other key components to consider.

These are the five things I think are most important in choosing a music therapist or music teacher for a child with autism.

1. Music knowledge

You need someone who understands music. Aysh’s music teacher is a musician and plays professionally. He is able to pick up a guitar, sit at the drum kit and play a tune on the keyboard. This helps him be flexible to adapt to Aysh’s interests and it means that he can recognise errors or gaps in his learning.

2. Teaching experience

I don’t mean they have to be a school teacher when I say this. But they need to be able to understand the specifics of instructional teaching – how to break down something and teach the components for example. It does of course help if they have experience with children and young people.

3. Appropriate knowledge of autism and/or disability

I wanted to know that Aysh’s music teacher already had a good understanding of autism and the challenges this presents. I knew we had found the right person when he showed us around the music studio and they had created sensory spaces in the corners where children could self-regulate during a session. It is great if they have a few tricks up their sleeves to help with behaviour and frustration too.

It is also important that they have an understanding of any communication challenges. This is tricky with someone like Aysh who communicates so minimally. But after a few guided sessions, they now have a great communication style worked out between them (it involves lots of pointing!)

4. Passion

Whenever we choose a new support worker or a new service, the thing I look for first is passion. Passion for what they are doing and for improving outcomes for people with disability, is more important to me than a degree or extensive experience. I want to work with individuals who are on the same page and keen to work with us to achieve our goals.

5. Environment

It is important to have a space with the least distractions to give the ability to focus on the task. We are lucky to have a fully equipped music studio for Aysh’s sessions. I don’t think that is necessary, but it does add to the importance and the value of the sessions. You could just as easily enjoy and engage with music in any setting, but it is probably worth considering if an environment is a particularly good fit for your child, based on their sensory needs and special interests.

Conclusion

What is music therapy for autismThe term ‘music therapy’ always made me a little uncomfortable if I am honest. It made me think of some kind of “hippy” intervention where people chanted and hit bongos. And maybe there are elements of this in the music therapy world.

But our experience has been different to this. Our sessions look much more like a typical music lesson – with adjustments for Aysh’s needs. The differences lie in the design of the sessions and the commitment to actively pursue goals like communication and social skills, using music to engage him.

And why wouldn’t we continue a therapy that makes him as happy and focused as this? It’s a simple choice for us really.