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How does music therapy help with autism?

Music therapy for autism: What parents should know

Updated: August 4, 2023 · 7 Minute Read

Megan Joseph, MME, MT-BC

Reviewed by:

Megan Joseph, MME, MT-BC, owner of Meraki Music


  • Music therapy can help your kiddo improve their communication skills, enhance body awareness, and reduce anxiety.
  • Playing an instrument can be part of the music therapy process, but learning the instrument is not the priority.
  • Studies have shown that music therapy can have a significant impact on people with autism. Music therapy has even been shown to increase brain connectivity.
  • While most insurance does not cover music therapy, there are options available to help offset the cost.

Music therapy can can help your kiddo improve their communication skills, enhance body awareness, and reduce anxiety. Music helps everything. It makes our commute more enjoyable, cleaning the house less of a chore, and when we are feeling sad the right song can turn our mood around. But did you know that music also has therapeutic properties as well? And not just because we all say so, there’s actual science to back it up!

“Where words fail, music speaks.” — Hans Christian Andersen


What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a type of therapy that uses activities like singing, playing instruments, and listening to music to help a child reach their specific goals. 


Here are the different types of music intervention used in music therapy:1



  1. Music listening allows the child to listen to their choice of music in a controlled environment. This can be great for relaxation, mood regulation, and self-expression.
  2. Interactive or educational music therapy is a more structured method that uses educational techniques and musical games. This type of therapy can be used to achieve many different types of goals, including developing better communication skills, improving cognitive function, and promoting social interaction. It is also a great way to improve a child’s physical skills.
  3. Improvisational music therapy means the kids make their own music! It encourages and promotes spontaneous non-verbal communication through music production. This can help with emotional regulation, creative expression, and self-exploration. It can also help a child improve their communication skills too!


What does a music therapy session look like?

Music therapy can take place in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, the child’s own home, rehabilitation centers, and clinics.


A therapy session will vary from child to child, depending on the child’s specific needs. Before your child starts music therapy, their music therapist will develop a personalized treatment plan for your child. Depending on your child’s goals their treatment may involve singing, dancing, listening to music, playing an instrument, or even composing music.



Although every’s child’s treatment plan will vary depending on their specific needs, during a session your child may:


Listen to music

  • This can be live music or a recording
  • Enjoy the sounds and lyrics
  • Learn music-assisted relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing
  • Discuss their own emotional reaction to a song or sounds

Create Music

  • Play an instrument like piano, drums, maracas, guitar, and other instruments
  • Use their voice to sing a song or share a tune
  • Compose music or write lyrics

Move to Music

  • Clapping hands, tapping feet, snapping fingers
  • Creating their own choreography to go with the music
  • Move in time with the music to practice coordinating motor movement


Does your child like pop or maybe country music? Their music therapist will do their best to include your child’s preferred music in their sessions. Using your child’s favorite music helps provide familiarity, comfort, and interest.


Music therapy sessions usually range from 30 minutes to 1 hour once a week to multiple times a week to fit the needs of your child and your family. The sessions may be one on one or in a group.


How can music therapy help my autistic child?

Studies have shown that autistic individuals respond positively to music and often show an increased interest in music making music therapy a great option for them.2 Many autistic and neurodivergent children are drawn to creative activities.


Music is a powerful tool and can have a major impact on brain function. Music therapy can help children with autism improve connections in their brain and it is a great complementary intervention that works well in conjunction with other therapies like occupational or physical.1


Music therapy can help a child:

  • Improve self-expression
  • Improve attention
  • Improve sharing and turn-taking skills
  • Improve expressive and receptive language
  • Improve motor skills (often in conjunction with physical or occupational therapy)
  • Enhance body-awareness
  • Reduce stress and anxiety


Who should try music therapy?

Music therapy is a great option for any age or ability level. It can be a great option if you’re looking to help your child improve their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social skills. It is also a great option for anyone who struggles to communicate with words.


And if you’re looking to improve your connection to your child, family-centered music therapy has been proven to improve parent-child bonds.3


What does science say?

Recent studies have shown that music therapy can have a significant impact on children with autism. Music therapy has been shown to help autistic children improve their social interaction skills, verbal communication, initiating behavior, and social‐emotional reciprocity.4 And as we already mentioned, there are even signs that music therapy can help improve parent-child relationships.4


Research has shown that music can improve brain connectivity.1 Children with autism may struggle with overstimulation in brain activity, which makes it hard for them to control their actions. It has been proven that children who receive some sort of music intervention may have more control over their actions.1


Is music therapy the same as learning to play an instrument?

Music therapy and learning to play an instrument are not the same things. And while they may have some overlapping benefits, the overall goals and techniques used are not the same. If you are looking to build your child’s vocal skills or have them learn to play an instrument you would need to find a musical instructor, not a music therapist. However, with that being said, playing an instrument can be part of the therapy process, but learning to play the instrument is not the priority.


Are there any downsides to music therapy?

Overall music therapy is an effective therapy for most people with minimal downsides. While music therapy is safe for most people, some people may struggle with:5

  • Overstimulation. Especially for children with sound sensitivities music therapy may lead to overstimulation. To avoid the risk of overstimulation the music therapist may need to carefully choose the music and volume or tempo of music used to meet your child’s needs.
  • Anxiety. Although music therapy is often used to treat things like anxiety, for some people it may actually increase anxiety.
  • Time commitment. Some may also consider music therapy time-consuming. To help your child really progress they may need to practice the techniques they are learning outside of their set therapy sessions.


What about the cost?

Depending on where your child receives music therapy, for example at school vs a private clinic, the costs of treatment vary. Typically, a music therapist charges between $70 to $150 per hour.


Although most health insurance does not cover this music therapy, some insurance companies are beginning to offset the costs of some creative therapies, which include music therapy. Some states are also beginning to offer waiver programs.


Music therapy is also covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), meaning that children and young adults may be eligible for music therapy services under the IDEA Part B.6


How to find a music therapist?

When looking for a music therapist to work with, you may want to look for someone with MT-BC at the end of their name. MT-BC stands for Music Therapist — Board Certified and can only be obtained by passing the national board certification exam. The certification is granted by the Certification Board for Music therapists (CBMT) and identifies therapists who have demonstrated “the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to practice at the current level of the profession.”2


Some states may even require a music therapist to obtain a license on top of their certification. States currently requiring licensure include Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Virginia.


You can find an autism and neurodiversity-friendly music therapist here!


What to expect from a music therapy evaluation

Once you find a music therapist, the therapist will perform an evaluation to determine if music therapy is a good fit for your child as well as determine possible goals. The evaluation will be comprehensive and look at your child’s response to a variety of musical stimuli, including giving your child an opportunity to play with instruments or listen to a variety of music types.


Evaluations will vary based on setting. For example, private practice has a number of evaluation tools while schools typically use an evaluation tool called the SEMTAP (special education music therapy assessment protocol) that focuses on looking at a student’s IEP goals and how or if the addition of music aligns with their IEP goals.


Lastly, goals are created and sessions are scheduled for regular intervals. Your music therapist will take data at every session and update goals regularly to meet your child’s needs in the moment.



Since we started with a quote, let’s end with another one.


“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” — Elton John

Dive Deeper

Article References

  1. Vikas R. Music Therapy and Autism. Think Neurology for Kids. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  2. Music Therapy as a Treatment Modality for Autism Spectrum Disorders. American Music Therapy Association. June 2012. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  3. Rudy L.J. Music Therapy for Autistic Children. VeryWell Health. February 12, 2023. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  4. Geretsegger M, Elefant C, Mossler K A, Gold C. Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Library. June 17, 2014. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  5. Outcomes, Benefits, and Drawbacks of Music Therapy. Incadence. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  6. Fact Sheet: Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). American Music Therapy Association. August 26, 2015. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  7. With Growth Rates Steady, Music Therapy on Pace to Soon Reach 10,000 Certificants. Certification Board for Music Therapists. July 29, 2021.
  8. Wright J. Cognition and behavior: Pitch perception heightened in autism. Spectrum. January 11, 2023.
  9. Shi Z, et al. Effects of music therapy on mood, language, behavior, and social skills in children with autism: A meta-analysis. Chinese Nursing Research.  September 2016.
  10. Katagiri J. The effect of background music and song texts on the emotional understanding of children with autism. The Journal of Music Therapy. 2009.
  11. Lim H A. Effect of ‘developmental speech and language training through music’ on speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders. The Journal of Music Therapy. 2010.
  12. Brownell M D. Musically adapted social stories to modify behaviors in students with autism: Four case studies. The Journal of Music Therapy. 2002.
  13. Pasiali V. Supporting parent-child interactions: music therapy as an intervention for promoting mutually responsive orientation. The Journal of Music Therapy. 2012.
  14. Gooding L F. The effect of a music therapy social skills training program on improving social competence in children and adolescents with social skills deficits. The Journal of Music Therapy. 2011.
  15. What is Music Therapy? American Music Therapy Association
  16. Steinbrenner J R, et al. Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults With Autism. National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team. 2020.