What is music therapy?

Music therapy uses music and the interactions between teachers and children to teach specific skills. There are many different types of music therapy.

For people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), music therapy uses interactive musical activities to improve social and communication skills.

Who is music therapy for?

Music therapy is for anyone of any age or ability.

What is music therapy used for?

Music therapy is used to improve social and communication skills.

Where does music therapy come from?

Music therapy was first used for children with special needs in the early to mid-1900s in the United States. Its use became more widespread in the 1950s and 1960s in the United Kingdom. Music therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) developed as a way to improve these children’s difficulties with social interaction and communication.

What is the idea behind music therapy?

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, improvising, songwriting and listening to music. These activities are intended to promote communication and social skills like making eye contact and taking turns.

Therapists can also use musical activities to teach new skills. This happens by pairing new skills with their own musical cues. Once children have learned the skills, they no longer need the cues. The cues are gradually phased out until the skills happen by themselves.

For a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a music therapist might also write lyrics about specific behaviour – for example, turn-taking. The therapist sings the lyrics to the melody of a song the child knows well. The idea is that the child might be better able to focus on sung information than spoken information.

What does music therapy involve?

Music therapy typically involves the following stages:

  1. Assessment: the therapist assesses a child to find out the child’s needs. Because music therapy is often used along with other autism spectrum disorder (ASD) therapies, the therapist might also consult the child’s doctor or other therapists.
  2. Goal-setting: an individualised program is developed based on the child’s needs.
  3. Activities: sessions consist of activities designed to meet the child’s individual needs. These could include songwriting, moving to music, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, working in groups and improvising.
  4. Evaluation: the program is regularly evaluated to make sure it’s working well.

Music therapy sessions can be one on one or in a group.

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

Cost considerations

The cost per session varies and depends on the therapist.

Does music therapy work?

Some research has shown positive effects from this therapy, but more high-quality studies are needed.

Who practises music therapy?

Registered music therapists practise music therapy. A registered music therapist is someone who has completed an accredited training program and is registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association.

Music therapists work in a range of organisations including special schools, nursing homes, early intervention centres and mental health facilities. They also work in private practice.

Many therapists work with specific groups of people, so not all will have experience in working with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). You’ll need to check the experience of any therapist you choose to work with.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

You don’t need to do any training for this approach.

Where can you find a practitioner?

You can find a registered music therapist on the Australian Music Therapy Association website.

If you’re interested in music therapy it’s a good idea to talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.