How Music Therapy Helps Prepare Autistic Children for the World at Large

blue puzzle piece representing the autism speaks organization

Dr. Temple Grandin has spent her entire life dealing with autism in one form or another. Diagnosed at age 2, now that she is an adult she is an activist for those with the disorder. She understands firsthand what children with autism need, and what they do not need.

Because autism has symptoms that can be as unique as the person diagnosed, what works for one child may not work or another. “Some children may need a behavioral approach, whereas other children may need a sensory approach,” she offers.

Autism – Boys versus Girls

This is especially important for boys. In his book Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax  explains that boys are genetically engineered to achieve more through sensory learning techniques such as outdoor classrooms and hands-on materials.

According to a report by the National Institutes of Health, the male-to-female ratio for autism spectrum disorders is as high as 4:1. This makes the need for sensory therapies to assist with these people greater than ever.

One type of sensory approach that works for a wide range of people diagnosed with some type of autism spectrum disorder is music therapy. While still a relatively new technique, music therapy uses either vocal or instrumental music, or a combination of the two.

Music as a Universal Communicator

The music therapist might have the patient listen to music in an attempt to cope with certain feelings and emotions like grief or fear, or sing along while using interactive play to teach specific skills, such as social greetings or tackling personal hygiene tasks.

Music therapist might meet with autistic patients in a variety of settings, including public schools, community health organizations, or in an office reserved for private practice. Regardless of the setting, children with autism who receive music therapy show dramatic improvement compared to others who do not.

Music therapy targets one of two primary goals when treating autism. The first is to improve communication and language skills, even if the child is nonverbal. The second is to improve social skills and behaviors.

The Relationship between Autism and Music

Autism is a neurological disorder, which means those with the disorder often have trouble processing human speech. Even when they can process speech, they have difficulty processing body language that expresses emotions such as happy, sad, or angry.

However the brain processes music differently than it does language. While scientists are still undecided about why this occurs, there are some findings on which the results show distinct progress. Here are a few of them:

  • Melodies or tunes that express emotion can help the brain process facial expressions or speech that depicts those same emotions. This goes a long way towards being able to successfully communicate with public society.
  • Playing a woodwinds instrument like a recorder or harmonica strengthens the same muscles in the lips, jaw, and tongue that are required for human speech. When the muscles are stronger, children are more likely to use their words.
  • Singing is easier or autistic children than speaking. In many cases, the only reason a child with autism speaks at all is because of the music therapy he received at some point.

The Danger of Music Obsession

Those with autism are at risk for selecting one thing and becoming obsessed with it. Often these are limited to behavior and routines, like watching the same television show at the same time every day, or becoming attached to a tangible object like a bottle cap or model trains.

While the person with autism learns a lot for the duration of their obsession, their intense feelings and strong interest might prevent them from progressing. The danger with music therapy is that if the person becomes obsessed with music, they risk becoming withdrawn and isolated.

For example, if a person with autism decides to learn piano or some other instrument, then the time they might spend practicing could prove far more than someone without the disorder who limits practice to an hour or two each day. This can be prevented if the music therapist is certified.

Those with a music therapy degree require more than 1,000 hours of training. In addition to music, they also study classes like psychology for their career as a music therapist. In addition to a degree, music therapists should have passed the national test offered by the Certified Board for Music Therapists.

About the Author

Freelancer Melissa Cameron has found success as both a writer and an internet marketer while working from home. While she enjoys all the advantages that come with freelancing, the one that tops the list is the ability to flex her schedule. Flexibility allows Melissa to balance her work with her love of outdoor activities like kayaking and hiking on fair weather days.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who are raising autistic children.

Melissa Cameron understands what it is like to need balance in a busy day with a spouse, children and elderly parents. When she does have a bit of spare time, she enjoys scrap-booking, digital photography and writing and hopes to realize her goals as a freelance writer online so she can work at home. Melissa loves surfing the Internet and her husband often refers to her as a walking infomercial.

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  • Mary Kathryn Johnson (@SayBumpandTweet) March 8, 2013, 9:43 pm

    Wonderful breakdown of communication and autism! Thank you for the musical bridge to communication for children on the spectrum. Music has proven to be a wonderful tool when helping my 11yo with Asperger’s tame and learn from his emotional responses to his peers and the world. I’m sure it will help many other parents and their children.

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