Special Needs

Music Therapy for Autism: How to Improve 18 Valuable Skills

My son´s special education unit has just added a new resource: music therapy for autism and special needs. I have to admit that music therapy had never made it to my short list of autism activities and resources. While it sounded like a cool activity, my son is extremely sensitive to noises. He has a love-hate relationship with loud musical instruments. He explains it like this: “They scare me and I love them at the same time”.


As excited as I was about music therapy for autism, I immediately realized I was clueless about how it could help my son. So I got in touch with our music therapist, asked him for some guidance and plunged into research. In today´s post, I will share with you some of the research-based benefits that the partnership of music and autism can facilitate.

But before we dive into music therapy for autism and special needs, let’s go through some basic facts about music therapy.

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What is music therapy?

Music therapy is the planned use of music to assist with the healing and personal growth of people with identified emotional, intellectual, physical or social needs. Quoting the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) “clinical music therapy is the only professional, research-based discipline that actively applies supportive science to the creative, emotional, and energizing experiences of music for health treatment and educational goals”.

What is the difference between music education and music therapy?

The goal in music education is to acquire musical knowledge and skills, while in music therapy the primary goals aren’t musical but therapeutic.

Who can benefit from music therapy?

Anybody can benefit from music therapy, but it is an especially interesting resource for individuals with:

  • Developmental and learning disabilities
  • Mental health needs
  • Alzheimer’s disease or other aging-related conditions
  • Brain injuries
  • Physical disabilities
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Acute or chronic pain

What are some of the music therapy techniques?

These are some examples of music therapy techniques that are used to achieve healing, personal growth or education goals:

  • Music listening
  • Singing improvised music
  • Instrumental playing
  • Songwriting
  • Lyrics substitution
  • Lyrics discussion
  • Music and movement

Music therapy in Special Education

Music therapy in special education is the functional use of music to achieve special education goals. There is an important body of research that supports the use of music therapy to support developmental and educational goals in kids with autism or special needs. The programmes can be structured to complement a student’s Individual Education Plan goals, aiming to assist students’ cognitive, psychological, physical and socio-emotional development.

Related Reading: Music in Special Education

Music Therapy for Autism or Special Needs

Research has identified a number of educational or developmental goals that music can facilitate. The benefits of music therapy that I list below are just the ones I read about researching for this post, but I´m sure they are not the only ones.

18 Benefits of music therapy for autism or special needs

  • Practice and introduction of academic  concepts
  • Cognitive skills improvement
  • Aid memory recall
  • Improve attention span
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Improve pre-academic skills (on-task behavior, turn-taking skills, eye contact, skills of initiation, attention span)
  • Improvement in motor skills, posture, and sensory perception (rehabilitative goals)
  • Development of auditory skills and ability to follow directions
  • Improve use of their residual hearing in students with hearing impairments
  • Reduced motor activities in children with attention deficit disorder
  • Gross motor skills improvement (coordination, locomotion, agility, flexibility, balance, strength, laterality, and directionality in movement )
  • Fine motor skills improvement
  • Develop skills of self-expression and creativity
  • Development of social skills and improvement of peer relations
  • Assist integration into regular classes
  • Development of leisure skills
  • Enhance group participation skills ( cooperate, share, take turns, and interact with others)
  • Improved behavior in social and emotional domains

How does Music Therapy Work?

I don´t know about you, but I hear so often recommendations about activities or resources that can help us that I end up being a bit skeptical in general. I usually need to understand how things work before I make the effort to try them.

These are some examples of the benefits of music therapy achieved by applying specific techniques. As I am focusing on music for autism or special needs those benefits will revolve around accomplishing educational or developmental goals:

Goal: Practise and introduction of academic  concepts
Techniques: Word substitution into known song material and  playing music instruments
How it works: Recreative techniques allow for the repetition of newly acquired information.

Goal: Cognitive skills improvement
Techniques:  Use of music and the elements of music in music therapy programs
How it Works: melodic and rhythmic elements of music enhance the learning of information

Goal: Aid memory recall
How it works: music is used as an aid to memory and research shows recall is improved in both students with learning difficulties and their peers.

Goal: Improve attention span and decrease anxiety
How it Works: it is used as a background stimulus to increase attention span and decrease levels of anxiety for children with physical disability in a learning environment.

Goal: Development of auditory skills and ability to follow directions
How it Works: through music activities that require students to follow directions
Goal: increasing self-esteem, developing an awareness of self, and self-expression
How it works: use of improvisatory techniques (improvised instrumental or vocal music making by the student and/or therapist)

Goal: Acquisition of a particular skill
How it Works: recreating a pre-composed work, experience, musical story, or event. It involves the repetition of newly acquired information

Source to all previous information about music and special needs: Barbara Daveson & Jane Edwards (1998) A Role for Music Therapy in Special Education, International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 45:4, 449-457, DOI: 10.1080/1034912980450407

Other benefits of  music therapy

Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many other areas:

  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Movement facilitation
  • Increased motivation to engage in medical treatments
  • Emotional support
  • Expression of feelings

How can music therapy benefit healthy individuals?

Music therapy can benefit anybody, even perfectly healthy individuals. Examples of the applications, in this case, could be:

  • Stress reduction
  • Support for physical exercise


Useful links into pages that provide further information about music therapy:

Music Therapy Associations around the world:

Music Therapy Research

Music Therapy News Online:

Well, if you reached the end of this post, you know now as much as I do about music therapy for autism and special needs. I hope you found it useful.

More reading for parents:

30 Tips to Help Prevent your Autistic Child from Wandering

Coping Skills and Anger Management

Special Needs Parenting

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Benefits of Music Therapy for Autism and Special Needs