Exploring Music's Complexities

Music as Therapy in Children with Autism

The Emotion of Music: the Use of Music in Children with Autism

Kristin S. Padilla, RN, BSN, RNC


Welcome! In our journey to explore the use of music throughout the lifespan, we have reached childhood. We will be looking at the use of music as therapy in children with special needs, specifically focusing on children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Thousands of children in the US are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and the manifestations range from mild, such as usually seen with Asperger’s Syndrome, to severe. One characteristic seen in children with ASD is difficulty not only in expressing emotion, but understanding it as well, making effective communication a difficult task. They often have intense interests in certain things, such as a certain toy and can easily be overwhelmed in social situations. These challenges can lead to social isolation and loneliness.

For this reason, Istvan Molnar-Szakacs set out to use music as a way to teach children with ASD how to understand and express emotion, as well as recognize emotion in others. Molnar-Szakacs is a researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity as well as a member of the Help Group-UCLA Autism Research Alliance. He received a grant from the NAMM foundation (a foundation dedicated to music education, please visit their website at http://www.nammfoundation.org) to develop a music education program dedicated to children with ASD

Molnar-Szakacs states “this is a ‘naturalistic study,’ in that it takes place not in a lab but in the child’s classroom at the Help Group’s Village Glen School for children with autism, where they are engaged in music-making.”

A method of music education known as the Orff-Schulwerk approach was used. This exceptional concept to music education was developed by German composer Carl Orff and is based on the fact that children intuitively sing, clap, chant rhymes, dance and will keep a beat or play a rhythm (I can attest to this while watching my ten month old son sway to music or beat bowls together in a rhythmic pattern). It uses movement activity and is “basic, unsophisticated and concerned with the fundamental building blocks of music.”

This 12-week program used musical games, instruments and teamwork to pair emotions found in music with “displays of social emotion (happy with happy, sad with sad, etc.) in a social, interactive setting.”

The goal for Molnar-Szakacs in working with these children was to awaken their musical potential, which he describes as “to be able to understand and use music and movement as form of expression and, through that, to develop a recognition and understanding of emotions.” It is his belief that participation in music (being able to listen to and appreciate music, singing, etc.) is as important to a child’s development as mathematics or linguistics. Furthermore, he feels that participating in musical activities can add to other developmental skills such as language and social skills.

He states, “beyond these more concrete intellectual benefits, the extraordinary power of music to trigger memories and emotions and join us together as an emotional, empathetic and compassionate humanity are invaluable.”

The research conducted during this program evaluated the improvements in social communication and emotional functioning abilities of the child participants in the music education program. The goal was to have a “fun, engaging and cost effective therapeutic intervention to help children with ASD recognize and understand emotions in daily life interactions,” thus improving the quality of life for these children.

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.  We will be looking further into the Use of Music in Children with Autism.


University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences (2009, July 21). The Sounds of Learning: Studying The Impact Of Music On Children With Autism. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090720220414.htm.


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Categorised in: Archive, Health and Wellness, Social Side of Music

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