November 28, 2023
November 28, 2023

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According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” The definition of “evidence-based” in terms of research related to music therapy is inconsistent. However, studies do exist that inform the practice of music therapy and frameworks for establishing true evidence-based models are being developed. Music training from a therapeutic perspective has been shown to affect change in language use and development, as well as behavior, according to some researchers. The following will briefly describe some of the research regarding music as a therapeutic intervention for children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other impairments.

Music therapy is an approach that uses a variety of music-related activities with the intention of treating illnesses, both somatic and mental. It is considered a multidisciplinary field, encompassing natural, social and behavioral sciences, arts and even mathematics.  One theory suggests its efficacy is due to neuroplasticity; that is, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new neural pathways. It has been shown to improve visual-spatial, verbal and mathematic performance as well as attention and relaxation. Furthermore, it has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression.  All of these changes, however, seem to be affected by the method of music therapy used (i.e. active or passive), intensity and duration of training, instrument played, listener, skills of the therapist and type of music.

Researchers have found that music instruction improves fine motor and auditory discrimination skills. Additionally, music therapists believe music therapy helps to increase attention, on-task behavior, self-esteem, self-expression and frustration tolerance. It is unclear, however, whether they believe these benefits tend to generalize outside of the therapeutic session.

One recent study showed that active therapeutic techniques such as music performance, movement to music and improvisation can improve social competence and social functioning in children.  Specifically, these techniques can improve active listening (that is, looking at a person who is speaking), conversational turns and question asking, following directions, participating in activities, impulse control and appropriate use of nonverbal communication.

Drumming, for example, is gaining popularity for children with autism and ADHD.  Drum therapy incorporates hand/eye coordination, vestibular movement and visual perception. Piano is also a popular choice for these children due to its highly visual nature and the lack of fine motor control needed to produce sound.

Music therapy is clearly an intervention for a variety of conditions that is growing in uses and regard. For children with conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and others, it appears to be a promising therapeutic tool for improving deficits in many areas including communication, attention, social competence and some cognitive skills.

By Avigael Saucier Wodinsky,  PhD, MEd, MBA, GAC-ABA, GAC-AI

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