Exploring Music's Complexities

Music’s Role in Autism Spectrum Disorder

 Neurodevelopment of autism spectrum disorder

Thousands of children in the US have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder with symptoms ranging from mild, such as usually seen with Asperger’s Syndrome, to severe.  This post will be looking at the advances in the use of music as therapy in children with this disorder (ASD).

As noted in Webmed, “Autism is a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. Because of the range of symptoms, this condition is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It covers a large spectrum of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment. ASD ranges in severity from a handicap that somewhat limits an otherwise normal life to a devastating disability that may require institutional care (1).”


Children with ASD typically have difficulty in expressing and/or understanding emotion.  This makes communication difficult. They may also often have strong interests in certain things, such as a certain toy. They can frequently be overwhelmed in social situations. Challenges such as these can lead to isolation and loneliness (2). 

The clinical application of music in autism has a long history (Reschke-Hernandez, 2011).  Most therapy practices that included music-based techniques were centered on the primary symptoms noted above.

Since these early beginnings the incorporation of music in treating ASD has undergone some dramatic shifts.  Brain imaging and electrical recording techniques have provided new tools to evaluate music in therapy and education. These techniques (functional magnetic resonance imaging, positron-emission tomography, electroencephalography, and magnetoencephalography enable researchers to watch the living human brain while subjects are performing complex cognitive and motor tasks (3).

Use of Music Therapy

It has been noted that one of the reasons that music has quickly become a tool used in autism therapy is that it can stimulate both hemispheres of the brain. This means that a therapist can use a song or instrument to support cognitive activity so that he or she can build self-awareness and improve relationships with others.

By combining brain imaging, insight into its ability to change, and finding that musical and non-musical functions share systems—therapists finally can build powerful, testable hypothesis for using music in rehabilitation.  Music can now be investigated as a potential element of active learning and training (3).

Music encourages communicative behavior and can encourage interaction with others, which is something that autistic children have great difficulty with.  Music can drive general reeducation of cognitive, motor, and speech and language functions via shared brain systems and plasticity.  Active learning and training have shown promise to be the best strategy to help rewire the injured brain and recover as much ability as possible (3).


Although it is difficult to conduct randomized controlled studies on the use of music as therapy in ASD (due to the fact that it is a spectrum disorder and the behavior of individual children vary greatly), it appears that music therapy can be very beneficial in the ability of children with ASD to socially interact and express and understand emotion (4).

The current recommendation to use music therapeutically is supported by recent studies that suggested that adding rhythmic-motor components in music therapy interventions should demonstrate significant improvements in motor control, selective attention, speech production, and language processing and acquisition. Targeting motor and attention functions may show it to be effective to support healthy neurodevelopment of individuals with ASD (3).

In addition, neurologic music therapy now meets the standards of evidence-based medicine and is recognized by the World Federation of Neurorehabilitation. It should be a tool for standard rehabilitation care (5).


1. Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center              https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/default.htm

2. The Benefits of Music Therapy for Autistic Children https://nursejournal.org/community/the-benefits-of-music-therapy-for-autistic-children/

3. How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain.  https://dana.org/article/how-music-helps-to-heal-the-injured-brain/

4.  Thenille Braun Janzen, Michael H. Thaut. Rethinking the role of music in the neurodevelopment of autism spectrum disorder  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2059204318769639

5.  V.Hoemberg.  Evidence-based medicine in neurologic rehabilitation:  A critical review, Acta Neurochirugica 93 (2005):3-14.

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