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Music based intervention: an evidence based practice for children on the autism spectrum

Music therapy is now listed as evidence-based practice for children with autism, according to a new report from the “National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice." This is great news for families as it will increase music therapy services in education as well as insurance coverage for music therapy.

Music activates both hemispheres of the brain which makes it an incredible tool for building skills. By lighting up many regions of the brain, music can be utilized to target motor skills, speech and language, communication, attention, impulse control, social skills, and cognitive skills. The structure and predictability of music creates an environment where the child knows what's coming next which eases anxiety and creates many opportunities for successful participation. Music allows for the target goal to be repeated many times yet remain novel with changes in melody, rhythm or dynamics (maintaining attention).

By activating the motor cortex, music encourages movement. A steady beat activates the body and prepares the body to move, it creates stability and timing of movements and can help regulate the body. Music paired with movement can assist in motor planning, motor imitation, and increasing gross and fine motor skills. To learn more about music and movement visit our recent blog: Sing, Move, Shine! - Building motor skills and increasing sensory regulation.

Music can assist in building expressive and receptive language skills. Its predictability and structure provide the body with a musical prompt, activating speech and language centers and cueing with the familiarity of a word or phrase. For example, to target /b/ or /g/ sounds, we might use the song "Down by the Bay." While singing this familiar song with a child the music prompts "Down by the _____," "I dare not ____". The steady beat of the song activates the motor cortex, priming the body to sing, while the familiarity and repeating chorus sets the child up for successfully filling in sounds for /b/ (bay), or /g/ (go). Each time the chorus of the song comes around the familiarity readies the brain and body to fill where words are left out. The words are left out at a very specific spot in the song, a spot where there is some tension and release, or building and release which is a large part in music's ability to illicit response.

The structure of music creates areas of tension were our brains feel the need to conclude/release. By selecting (and often creating) songs that place the target sound, phrase, or action on the release we increase the opportunities for speech/action. This could be verbal, or filling in the word using an AAC device or sign language. The idea is that the desired response, or target, creates the release. Consider the difference between placing the target /b/ sound on "Down ___ the bay" compared with "Down by the ____." In which instance do you feel more compelled to fill in the word? This tension and release is a very powerful tool for skill building using music.

Because music activates so much of the brain, it allows for many avenues for a message to be perceived and comprehended. Music also helps us to retain information. Can you recall information you learned as a child through music? The alphabet is a perfect example. It would be very difficult to memorize 26 letters in order if they weren't taught in a song. Maybe you learned your childhood phone number or address by song. When a child learns information through music, that information is more easily retrieved during times of stress.

In education music is a very powerful, yet often an under-utilized, tool for skill building. With music intervention now listed as an evidence based practice for children on the autism spectrum we hope that we will see this tool being used more widely in education.

Questions about music therapy? Explore our website and blogs, or reach out to us via email!


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