Music Therapy & Autism Research

Music Therapy is research based.  There are many studies that show the effectiveness of music therapy  with a wide variety of populations such as infants receiving neonatal intensive care to children with Autism and special needs to those battling pain from cancer or neurological diseases such as Parkinson Disease or Alzheimer’s.

That being said, this article will focus in on the research that has been done on music therapy and individuals with Autism.   While studies and articles are becoming more abundant (at last count I had 70+ in my personal spreadsheet), there is one Cochrane Review that encompasses the most relevant and scientifically accepted studies out there having to do with music therapy and Autism.  This review is an excellent place to start.

What is a Cochrane Review?? 

A Cochrane Review is a systematic way to examine existing research for a treatment method and determine its effectiveness. The Cochrane Review is the “gold standard” in research for evidenced based health care. Evidenced base health care is exactly what it sounds like. Health care for individuals based on what the evidence (research) says.

Cochrane Reviews are recognized internationally and are designed to help practitioners make the best choices in terms of care and treatment for their clients. The reviews are updated regularly to ensure treatment decisions are made based on the most up to date research.

Each review consists of an “author team” and takes hundreds of hours to complete. All existing research about a topic is gathered and assessed to determine whether or not conclusive evidence exists. Strict guidelines exist about which studies can be included. They are predominantly looking for randomized control trials and clinical control trials with adequate sample sizes.

Each review address a clearly formulated question; for example: Does music therapy help people with autism spectrum disorders?

Does a Cochrane Review exist for music therapy and autism?

Happily, YES. Here is a link to the abstract of “Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder.” If you would like to review the full article, there are a couple options – 1) Find someone you know with access to research data bases or 2) purchase 24 hours of access to the article for $35.

What does the review tell us about music therapy and autism?

Each review’s abstract has a plain language section for which I am grateful. It can be difficult to interpret “research speak” as I call it. This section helps eliminate that barrier. I will summarize the result below

10 Studies – 165 participants

The author team deemed 10 studies with a total of 165 participants acceptable for inclusion in this review. This will tell you a lot about how strict the guidelines for inclusion are.  As I mentioned before I have 70+ articles regarding the use of music therapy with Autism in my own research database. I made my list before I had access to the full Cochrane Review, and I was excited to find most of the included articles already on my list (there were a couple of Master’s or PhD thesis’ I did not know about. Again, the inclusion of each article has to do with the type of study. Randomized and clinical control trials are MUCH preferable to case studies and studies that don’t have a control group.

Participant Info: 2-9years old, mostly male, all had an ASD diagnosis

Length of Treatment: 1 week (4 of the studies) – 7 months (1 study). The others were in between.

Key Results

“Music therapy was superior to ‘placebo’ therapy or standard care with respect to social interaction, non-verbal and verbal communicative skills, initiating behavior, and social-emotional reciprocity. Music therapy was also superior to ‘placebo’ therapy or standard care in the areas of social adaptation, joy, and the quality of parent-child relationship. None of the included studies reported any side effects caused by music therapy.”

To summarize, music therapy has been documented to help:

  • Social interaction
  • Non-verbal communicative skills
  • Verbal communicative skills
  • Initiating behavior
  • Social-emotional reciprocity
  • Social adaptation
  • Quality of parent-child relationship

Superior to ‘placebo therapy’ or standard care. What does that mean?

Placebo therapy refers to some kind of activity that is not music therapy. For example, a social story was read instead of sung to the participants. In other situations, rhythmic or normal speech was used instead of singing.

In some cases the same play activities were offered without using songs or music instruments or the therapist engaged with the child by responding to the child’s behavior non-musically and using non-music toys.

Standard care refers to varying forms of services and supports from early childhood centers or the routine clinical services that a child was also receiving.

List of 10 studies:

Below is the complete list of studies accepted in the review.  Depending on availability I have linked to the abstract or full text of each article.

Arezina CH. The effect of Interactive Music Therapy on Joint Attention Skills in Preschool Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder [Master’s thesis]. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, 2011.

Brownell MD. Musically adapted social stories to modify behaviors in students with autism: four case studies. Journal of Music Therapy 2002;39(2):117-44. [PUBMED:12213082]

Buday EM. The effects of signed and spoken words taught with music on sign and speech imitation by children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy 1995;32(3):189-202. [DOI: 10.1093/jmt/32.3.189]

Farmer K. The Effect of Music vs. Nonmusic Paired with Gestures on Spontaneous Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Skills of Children with Autism Ages 1-5 [Master’s thesis]. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, 2003.

Gattino GS, Riesgo RDS, Longo D, Leite JCL, Faccini LS. Effects of relational music therapy on communication of children with autism: a randomized controlled study. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 20011;20(2);142-54. [DOI:10.1080/08098131.2011.566933]

Kim J, Wigram T, Gold C. The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviors in autistic children: a randomized controlled study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2008;38(9):1758-66.

Lim HA. Effect of “developmental speech and language training through music” on speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Music Therapy 2010; Vol. 45, issue1:2-26.

Lim HA, Draper E. The effects of music therapy incorporated with applied behavior analysis verbal behavior approach for children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Music Therapy 2011;48(4):532-50.

Thomas A, Hunter B. The effect of music therapy on communication skills of children age 2-3 with autism: a pilot study. Proceedings of the American Music Therapy Association Conference; Minneapolis (MN). 2003.

Thompson G. Making a Connection: Randomised Controlled Trial of Family Centred Music Therapy for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder [PhD thesis]. Melbourne, Australia: The University of Melbourne, 2012.