The text reads Music Therapy and Autism. The background image is a photograph of a hand holding up a rainbow colored infinity pin.

Music Therapy for Autism

Co-authored by an Autistic music therapist and a self-diagnosed AuDHD music therapist

A Note from the Authors

This post was co-authored by an Autistic music therapist and a self-diagnosed AuDHD music therapist. The language used in this article reflects their own lived experiences, personal preferences, and language used in the referenced articles. Some Autistic folks may use different language to describe their own experiences. Thank you for engaging with our perspective!

In celebration of Autism Acceptance Month, we’re taking a closer look at current practices with Autism and music therapy. Read on for an up to date understanding of Autism, interactions with music therapy, therapeutic tips, and Autistic advocates to follow for more information.

Understanding Autism as an Experience, Not a Disorder

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that is hallmarked by the increased hyperconnectivity and hypoconnectivity of neurological structures in the brain that impact the individual’s subjective experience, sensory processing, communication, motor skills, and information synthesization of social communication. Autism does not have “symptoms” or “problems” that need to be addressed; it is a set of novel brain structure characteristics unique to each Autistic person that creates a specific life experience. Music therapy is used to build on strengths and provide support needs recognized by the client; it is an evidence-based practice where a credentialed professional uses musical interventions to achieve nonmusical outcomes that the Autistic person has identified will improve their quality of life.

Applying Research Over Stereotypes in Practice

While we, unfortunately, don’t have time to walk through every aspect of an Autistic presentation, let’s talk about a few main areas that interact specifically with music therapy. Autistic folks often experience complex sensory experiences including hyperreactivity, hyporeactivity, and sensory seeking (MacLennon et al, 2022). In therapies that do not support Autistic expression, sensory experiences often focus on desensitization or withholding of tools during sensory seeking to force solo regulation. However this practice does not account for the neurology of Autistic brain structures and the need for preferred sensory regulation experiences. The same study found that 60% of adult Autistic participants seek out music for sensory stimulation. In addition, Autistic people have an increased auditory perceptual capacity (Remington & Fairnie, 2017). Specifically, this leads to strength processing multiple auditory stimuli while maintaining selective attention toward a directed stimuli. Given the wide range of sensory experiences music therapists can provide, music therapy has the potential to meet the needs of an Autistic person in an effective way. 

Consider a client who is sensory seeking: in addition to hearing the sound of a drum beat, the client may also enjoy the vibrations on the drum or the visuals that accompany an ocean drum. Or think about how wonderfully various types of attention leads to effective improv: being able to keep a steady beat without influence from other variables, noticing all layers in the improvisation, and adapting instrument choice and play to create unique sounds.

A person wearing headphones, looking up and away from the camera, wearing a black and beige striped long-sleeved shirt.

Additional Therapeutic Tips: 

1. Be open-minded and curious:

One of the most common misconceptions about Autism is that every Autistic person will present with the same traits and experiences based off diagnostic stereotypes; this could not be farther from the truth. To create a safe and effective therapeutic space, approach sessions with the intention to learn about the person rather than to impose what you idealize a music therapy session will look like (Rafieyan, 2022).

2. Adhere to your client’s preferred communication system:

When we think of communication goals in music therapy, we often think of encouraging verbalization which is not accessible to all Autistic folks. While this is a valid approach when supported by the client’s own desires, there are many other options the client may thrive with including AAC devices, ASL, or physical prompts. Spend your first interactions discovering how the client most reliably communicates “yes” and “no,” frequently confirming with them as you learn (Rafieyan, 2022).

3. Prioritize autonomy:

Every client deserves the choice of when and how to engage in therapy. Present choices such as goal areas, song, communication style, accompaniment, instruments, intervention selection and order as much as possible.When a client communicates to you no, do not force them to continue on with the activity.

Don’t want to forget these tips? Grab our graphic!

Thanks for making it all the way down here to the end of this blog! We are so glad you are here to learn and grow with us – and there is always more learning and growing to do.

Check out these Autistic advocates we love: just a few of the folks working hard to educate and advance dialogue about Autism:

What tips did we miss? We’d love to hear from Autistic folks in the comments!

Co-authored by an Autistic music therapist and a self-diagnosed AuDHD music therapist

References

MacLennan, K., O’Brien, S. & Tavassoli, T. In Our Own Words: The Complex Sensory Experiences of Autistic Adults. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 3061–3075 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05186-3

Rafieyan, R. (2022). Getting to “No” You: When Nonspeaking Autistic People Refuse Music Therapy. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy22(3). https://doi.org/10.15845/voices.v22i3.3373

Remington, J., & Fairnie, J. (2017). A sound advantage: Increased auditory capacity in autism.
Cognition, 166, 459-465. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2017.04.002

The text reads Music Therapy and Autism. The background image is a photograph of a hand holding up a rainbow colored infinity pin.
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