The possibilities that music brings to the therapeutic process are endless. Communication, motor movement, processing, stimulation, sensory elements, and so much more are easily accessed through the use of music alone. As a new intern, my first weeks at the George Center have been full of observing all of this in action. My mind seems to be more full than ever of examples of how music therapy is used to benefit the lives of individuals everyday. Considering all of this, as I chose my first journal article, I decided to pick something that addresses one of many populations that I am passionate about: children with autism.
In my experience, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) presents itself differently in every child. There is beauty in this, but it definitely does NOT make an easy job for science. This diagnosis can still be a highly controversial in many settings and even homes. The history of therapy for this population can be both inspiring and heartbreaking to those who know how far the world of healthcare has come in regards to individuals with ASD. All of this is exciting as we see research lead to successes being documented, especially with music therapy.
According to the article Effects of a Music Therapy Group Intervention on Enhancing Social Skills in Children with Autism, statistics show that 1 in 88 children in the United States are diagnosed with ASD (LaGasse, 2014). Since this study statistics have changed. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention 1 in 68 children now meet the criteria for ASD. Autism is defined in short, as a neurodevelopmental disorder. Current research suggests that neurological aspects influence specific features of ASD. Some of these directly relate to motor deficits and difficulties with sensory processing. However, research also confirms that individuals with ASD demonstrate different musical processing skills, in that the activation of their brain surpasses that of neurotypical or normally developing individuals (LaGasse, 2014). So, good news: music is a multisensory medium!
You may ask, “What is one of the biggest challenges for children with ASD?” I would venture to say that one of the largest areas of focus in general is socialization and communication. Although this is a large focus, to achieve goals in this area the regulation of the sensory system is what current research has shown to be most important. Therefore, it may be language development we are trying to foster; other times it is socialization skills and interactions that are required on a daily basis that we are trying to build on or make more tolerable through music therapy. The areas of expressive, receptive, verbal, and nonverbal language all fall under social and communicative areas of development. One way music therapy can help children that battle issues like this is through group interventions. This article by LaGasse exemplifies recent successes in this area, so let’s jump into the details!
Studies show that music therapy can improve social behaviors and joint attention in children with ASD. LaGasse delves into what impact music therapy has in a group setting along with areas of focus within the groups relating to social skills, which included eye gaze, joint attention, and communication. To examine this in the study children ages 6-9 with ASD were assigned a music therapy group or a non-music therapy group. The children participated in two 50-minute sessions per week for 5 weeks, for a total of ten sessions during the study. Each group was designed to target social skills.
Social skills are important to be addressed in children with autism because the lack of development in these skills will have lifelong implications (LaGasse, 2014). It is stressed that social skills are needed in every relationship and activity. Noting this, another important piece of research is referenced in this article, stating that, “ The notion that persons with ASD do not want to be involved in their environment is being challenged as self-advocates with autism indicate that it is not a matter of wanting to interact; rather, they have an inability to follow through or tolerate the desired interaction” (Goddard & Goddard, 2012). Key words there are inability and desired. As research like this advances, it is becoming more apparent that by helping develop these skills in children with ASD, we are also giving them tools to enhance their overall quality of life.
The outcome of this study was very interesting. Through the use of uniform scales to measure the changes in social behaviors, the results found over this brief period of time that the music therapy group showed more improvements. Positive differences primarily showed up in attention with peers and eye gaze towards individuals (LaGasse, 2014). After 10 sessions the mean for eye gaze variable in the final calculations increased by 3.73 for the music therapy group. The mean decreased 14.75 for the non music social skills group. The explanation of these results pointed toward musical structure being able to maintain children’s attention to their peers more than the prompts and visuals used in the nonmusical group.
These results are important because they validate techniques being used in music therapy and highlight an issue that has a lasting impact on the ASD population. In the music therapy group of this study, some intervention tools used were rhythmic cueing, rhythmic deep pressure exercises with songs, instrument playing, as well as music and movement. For both groups the goals were the same, however, outcomes for the music therapy group were different. Both groups had interventions revolving around group interactions, cooperative play, and sensory experiences. The rhythmic and structural components of music can provide a cue or foundation externally that assists individuals with ASD in organizing their responses to their surroundings (LaGasse, 2014). This fact only supports why the music therapy group had higher positive outcomes.
This article is one of many that scientifically support the use of music therapy for children with ASD. This type of research impacts my work as a future music therapist and as an advocate for individuals I serve because it supports the use of music as a therapeutic tool to reach nonusical goals. Going forward, I will continue to observe and participate in ASD groups with the mindset that this type of research gives of hope and a solid foundation to what possible benefits music therapy services can bring. There are opportunities everyday to observe success happening at the George Center. I appreciate the proactiveness, integrity, and assumed competence I have observed each therapist treat ASD clients with at this facility.
The importance of early intervention and consistent complimentary treatments like music therapy cannot be advised enough by professionals. It is my hope that through being able to share small pieces of this, that parents, teachers, and current therapists will continue to take initiative and stay updated on ASD research. For this relates to our professions, our caregivers, our community, and most importantly our loved ones impacted by this diagnosis everyday. It is our job to advocate and support these children that cannot always access the ability to do so for themselves.
A. Blythe LaGasse (2014). Effects of a Music Therapy Group Intervention on Enhancing Social Skills in Children with Autism, Journal of Music Therapy, 51,(3). 250–275.
Goddard, P., & Goddard, D. (2012). I am intelligent: From heartbreak to healing- A mother and daughter’s journey through autism. Guilford, CT: Skirt!