By Lillieth Grand, MS, MT-BC
Music is a non-threatening medium for clients to achieve developmental and neurological goals. Clients work hard while having fun in a success-oriented environment, which is why music therapy has become an evidencebased option for working with those on the autism spectrum.
“Music therapy is the specialized use of music by a credentialed professional who develops individualized treatment and supportive interventions for people of all ages and ability levels to address their social, communication, emotional, physical, cognitive, sensory and spiritual needs,” according to the Certification Board for Music Therapy.
The therapy option can also carry over into language development.
“Music therapy is relational,” says David Berrier, father of a 4-year-old boy with dyspraxia and autism from Salem. “He’s learning how to relate to his music therapist and us. Since he started music therapy, he can now use language on purpose to get what he wants and his vocabulary is growing.”
Clinical studies have focused mainly on the use of music therapy to:
- Increase attention span and emotional regulation
- Enhance auditory processing and sensory motor skills
- Improve cognitive functioning
- Increase socialization
- Improve verbal and behavioral skills
- Decrease agitation and self-stimulation
- Have successful and safe self-expression
“Prior to music therapy, my son had one emotion: anger,” says a Tualatin mother of a preschool boy with behavior and sensory integration disorders. “Since working with Lillie, he has a full range of emotional expression and can identify emotions in himself and others. His aggressive behaviors are way down! And he says that music therapy is fun.”
Within one year of beginning therapy, many parents report high positive results. This indicates that skills and responses acquired in music therapy do generalize to nonmusic therapy environments.
The American Music Therapy Association reports “music therapy is a particularly important intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders to engage and foster their capacity for flexibility, creativity, variability and tolerance of change.”
Music is a strong stimulus that can be manipulated outside of the body and has a profound and dramatic impact on the human neurological system. Music provides concrete, multi-sensory stimulation (auditory, visual, proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile), and is processed globally (both hemispheres) in the brain.
A music therapist is specially trained to use music, and the elements of music, in order to target specific non-musical outcomes. Here are a few brief case studies from my work as a music therapist:
- A child with Down Syndrome and ASD had severe sensory integration dysfunction, making it near impossible for her family to have community outings. They couldn’t run the vacuum if she was in the house and she found flushing the toilet disturbing. After 11 months of music therapy specifically targeting her auditory, tactile and vestibular sensitivities, the family was able to successfully enjoy a week-long vacation at Disneyland. The following year they drove in their motor home across the country where she was able to surf in the Atlantic Ocean. Her mother recently said, “Anything is possible for her now.”
- A 5-year-old boy with ASD could decode words at a fifth-grade level, but had no comprehension of what he was reading. During the music therapy assessment, it was discovered that if he read a first-grade level book silently or aloud, he could answer basic who/what/where questions with about 5 percent accuracy. If the same level book was read aloud to him, he could answer questions at about 20 percent accuracy. If, however, the book was sung to him, he could answer the questions with more than a 95 percent accuracy. The student’s reading comprehension was then targeted specifically using music therapy as a related service on his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). By using music therapy, it took just over seven months to attain the skill; the music was then systematically faded out and the skill remained.
- In a group made up of first- through third-grade students on the spectrum, all students learned to pick a peer, acknowledge each other, take turns, pass instruments to the right, utilize “please” and stop on cue.
- After learning to repeat rhythmic sequencing patterns of seven beats on four of five percussion instruments, several children on the spectrum are now able to better handle transitions, changes to their schedule and unexpected events.
Music therapy treatment is individualized based on client needs, while keeping in mind their preferences, and can be done in one-to-one or group formats. Although recorded music is sometimes utilized, most music therapy sessions tend to include live and interactive music. A music therapist may also provide consultative services.
Music therapy may be covered by insurance and can be included as a related or supplemental service in a child’s IEP or IFSP. If you are interested in learning more, visit American Music Therapy Association’s to find a music therapist (MT-BC) or tools for advocacy. The Certification Board for Music Therapy can also be a resource for finding a MT-BC near you.
Lillieth Grand is a mother of three boys, ages 15, 13 and 4 and has been a music therapist since 1993. Her middle child is severely neurologically impaired, motivating her to specialize in working with children who have autism, neurological impairment, traumatic brain injury and developmental disabilities. She is passionate about the field and holds several regional and national positions with AMTA and WRAMTA and also owns a private music therapy business, Milestone Music Therapy, based in Portland.