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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Thomas

Autism and Music Therapy

Hi, and welcome back to the blog! I really hope you enjoyed our introductory post last month, and thanks for coming back to read this month's post.

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This month on the blog, we're talking about autism. You may already have an understanding of what autism is and how it can affect people's lives, but autism can be a confusing topic, as it has been classified and re-classified over the years. You may have heard many different names for autism over the years including Asperger's, ASD, or pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Now, the DSM-5 has classified all of these under the umbrella term of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, many people (myself included) believe that the word 'disorder' is not truly representative of what autism is, and prefer to just use the phrase autism spectrum or autism. This is because (in my opinion at least) autistic people experience neurodivergence, and I don't believe that people who experience the world differently due to neurodivergence should be classified as having a disorder. I believe that neurodiversity should be celebrated and society should be educated and more inclusive of those with neurodiversity's, as with any other diversity.

Additionally, the way we refer to autistic people is important in respecting their view of their experience of autism. Often, medical and healthcare professionals have been taught to use the phrase 'people with autism', as an example of person first language (meaning that the person is more than their diagnosis), but many autistic advocates prefer to be referred to as an 'autistic person', as they believe that autism a huge part of what makes them who they are, and don't think it should be seen as separate to their identity. However, this is a largely debated topic and everyone thinks differently about it, so it's important to get clarification on this from autistic people in your life. For this post, I will be using the phrase autistic people, in line with what I've learned and read from autistic advocates. However, if this is not your preferred way of talking about autism, let me assure there was no harm meant and please feel free to get in touch to share your point of view.

So how can music therapy be helpful for autistic people?

Music therapy is often associated with autism, and it's often what people assume the work revolves around. This is because music therapy has long been used with autistic people and has shown to be helpful in areas such as speech and communication, social skills, emotional regulation and self-expression.

Some of the difficulties that autistic people may encounter include:

  • Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or OCD

  • Relational and communicative difficulties, including:

    • understanding context

    • social cues, including non-verbal cues and body language

  • Difficulty with change

  • Reliance on repetition and routine

  • Restricted interests

  • Repetitive behaviours

  • Sensory processing difficulties

Autism can also be seen in conjunction with developmental delays, disabilities, and neurological disorders, and so each persons' experience of autism is vastly different and is as unique as they are. What music therapy aims to do is meet the individual needs of autistic people, rather than trying to make them more like their neurotypical peers or 'fit in' to a neurotypical society. These needs may be purely about self-expression or enjoyment, and can range to more complex matters such as assisting in speech development or learning coping strategies for dealing with stressful environments. Music therapy can also be a positive way for autistic people to connect with people around them and form social bonds through non-verbal communication and enjoyment. This bonding and connection can be especially important for families and carers, as it can provide valuable time to just be together and engage in an enjoyable activity.

What are some of the music therapy methods that can be helpful for autistic people?

Some of the most commonly used music therapy methods in sessions with autistic people are improvisation, instrument learning, singing, and songwriting.

Improvisation refers to the spontaneous play of instruments or singing, with no pre-determined structure or musical 'rules'. This can involve a variety of instruments or can be done vocally. In improvisatory experiences, clients are free to play or sing anything at all that they feel, and the therapist aims to match, mirror or extend the improvisation depending on the particular needs of the client. This means that the therapist will either meet the client where they're at musically by playing similar notes or rhythms, and completely following the clients' lead. If the therapist thinks it will be beneficial to extend the clients playing into a different theme in order to explore new emotions or extend the client-therapist relationship, the therapist may introduce their own ideas and create more of a musical 'conversation' rather than purely responding to the clients input. The therapeutic aims of this method include creating joint attention, increasing communicative ability and social skills, as well as allowing for self-expression, creativity, reducing anxiety and agitation and sensory regulation.

Learning instruments or learning to sing is another method often used with autistic people in music therapy. This method uses more defined parameters for musical play, which can provide structure and predictability that could be very helpful for particular clients in their sessions. Many autistic people rely on routines to feel safe and comfortable, so this kind of method could be suitable for those clients. This method aims to meet the needs of communication, regulation, musical understanding, cognitive stimulation and building client-therapist relationships. Additionally, singing can be helpful in speech production and inflections.

Songwriting is an effective method used in music therapy sessions that aims to increase abstract thought, perception of feelings and emotions, and collaboration. This method is generally reserved for clients who are verbal and have the ability to communicate through language. Songwriting often involves the expression of feelings and abstract ideas, sometimes through metaphors and storytelling, rather than explicitly stated facts. This can be an area of need or potential development for autistic people and songwriting can be engaging way to increase these areas.

I hope this brief look into how music therapy can be helpful for autistic people has been informative and that you've learned something new! If you'd like to learn more, I've listed some resources that I used down below, and feel free to get in touch or leave a comment down below. You can also join our mailing list on the blog homepage to receive email updates about new blog posts, or connect with us on social media via the social bar in the left-hand menu.

Thanks so much for reading, your support means the world and I can't tell you how much I appreciate you reading my humble blogging efforts! I'll be back with another new blog post next month :)



Music Therapy Handbook by Barbara L. Wheeler, published by The Guildford Press 2015.


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