Music Therapy: Tuning in for Autistic Children

Written by Faiz Danyal

When I was young, I had music therapy at Tomatis Specialist Centre in Singapore. I was put in a special room alone as classical music from Mozart, Beethoven and others were played through my headphones. As I listened, I started feeling a difference. My brain calmed down and I felt more self-composed and relaxed. After 1 month of therapy sessions, I felt less aggressive and did not throw tantrums at my parents. I stopped dancing and running while making weird noises. As someone who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I believe music therapy helped me to learn how to control and manage myself. In this article, we will explain how music could benefit children with ASD.

One of the key benefits of music for those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in improving their social skills. Autistic children in their school age remained disengaged in social interactions due to their inability to interact with people. Therefore, they are not able to develop their social-communicative skills. Many alternative and creative mediums like music are being utilized to improve their social communication, thus encouraging meaningful relationships. According to several previous randomized controlled trials (RCTs), individuals with ASD have experienced positive effects from music such as improved social interactions with other people and parent-child relationships as they become more confident in speaking up when they can manage their emotions. Thus, music encourages children with ASD to express their desire to befriend others. Music also encourages autistic children to play with their friends when they have a shared experience together such as sharing the same song together and expressing their feelings after listening to the song.

Autistic children can also improve their speech and language ability due to their perceptual preference for music as they prefer following the audio content to understand what the words mean. Autistic children are more open to auditory stimulus, especially music, as compared to a visual stimulus. Thus music-related stimuli significantly improves the frequency of verbal production that is helpful for some children with ASD to improve on their general and spontaneous speech ability.

One of the methods used to improve language and speech impairments in autistic children is antiphonal singing which is the combined usage of photo cards and songs. Children are able to imitate better as compared to speech only conditions where the children are only exposed to words and sentences. This results in a significant improvement in expressive and receptive language for children with autism as they are able to understand the information from the words, sentences and context.

Music positively impacts autistic children because as they listen to the music frequently, their brain will undergo structural and functional brain changes. According to Hudziak et al. (2014), using longitudinal data from the large NIH-MRI study of Normal Brain Development, healthy developing children playing musical instruments are connected to rapid increase in cortical thickness (CT) within areas responsible for motor planning and coordination. This is further proven by another research showing that children receiving music instruction experienced lesser reduction of cortical volume and thickness in a specific brain area called ‘auditory association areas’ located above the ears. The cortical thickness plays a critical part in brain maturity.

In short, music provides significant advantages for children with autism to develop their mental and social capabilities. Music helps them control their temper and behavior. This has a positive impact as they become more confident in social communications with other people. However, for the best result, parents should look and select the genre of music wisely for their autistic children to listen to because the type of music (depending on the beats and lyrics) can influence the child’s brain reaction.


If you are interested in learning more about music therapy, here are additional resources that we recommend:


1. Coffey, A. (2013). Relationships: the key to successful transition from primary to secondary school? Improving Schools; 16: 261–271. doi: 10.1177/1365480213505181.

2. Sharda, M., Tuerk, C., Chowdhury, R., Jamey, K., Foster, N., Custo-Blanch, M., Tan, M., Nadig, A., Hyde, K. (2018). Music improves social communication and auditory–motor connectivity in children with autism. Transl Psychiatry; 8: 231.

3. Geretsegger, M., Elefant, C., Mössler, K.A., Gold, C. (2014). Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev.;6:CD004381.

4. Kirschner, S., Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evol. Hum. Behav.;31:354–364. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004.

5. Kolko, D. J., Anderson, L., Campbell, M. (1980). Sensory preference and overselective responding in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders; 10, 259-271.

6. Seybold, C. D. (1971). The value and use of music activities in the treatment of speech delayed children. Journal of Music Therapy; 8, 102-110.

7. Buday, E. M. (1995). The effects of signed and spoken words taught with music on sign and speech imitation by children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy;32,189-202.

8. Hoskins, C. (1988). Use of music to increase verbal response and improve expressive language abilities of preschool language delayed children. Journal of Music Therapy; 25, 73-84.

9. Hyde, K.L., et al. (2009) Musical training shapes structural brain development. J. Neurosci. ;29:3019–3025. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5118-08.2009.

10. Hudziak, J.J., Albaugh, M.D., Ducharme, S., Karama, S., Spottswood, M., Crehan, E., Brain Development Cooperative Group (2014). Cortical thickness maturation and duration of music training: health-promoting activities shape brain development. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry; 53(11): 1153–1161.

11. Habibi, A., Damasio, A., Ilari, B., Veiga, R., Joshi, A.A., Leahy, R.M., Haldar, J.P., Varadarajan, D., Bhushan, C., Damasio, H. (2018). Childhood Music Training Induces Change in Micro and Macroscopic Brain Structure: Results from a Longitudinal Study. Cerebral Cortex; 28(12): 1-12. PMID 29126181 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhx286

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