How Music Therapy Brings New Harmony to Non-Verbal Autistic Children

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German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once mused, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Music lovers across time and space would agree, but none so much as music therapists and their patients – especially ones diagnosed with autism.


The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as: the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

Music therapists use song, instrumentals, and vocals to develop a therapeutic relationship with their patients. The goal of this relationship is address the client’s abilities and skills and promote transferring one-on-one exercises to situations outside the therapy session.

An example would be a music therapist who uses greeting and goodbye songs to teach an autistic child social graces such as handshakes and high-fives. It also helps non-verbal patients because it provides them with a universal language with which to communicate.

Specific Benefits of Music Therapy

In addition to non-verbal learning disorders that fall along the autism spectrum, such as Asperger’s syndrome, music therapy provides help with other issues including (but certainly not limited to) hearing, speech, developmental, learning, and neurological disorders.

Music therapy, when administered by a certified professional, may be designed to achieve a specific goal. Some of the benefits music therapy offers include:

  1. Physical Wellness – Some physical therapy patients have better results when listening to music because it takes their mind off their pain as they perform healing exercises.
  2. Stress Relief – Stress leads to so many health issues, like cardiovascular problems and obesity. Music therapy can help people face the stress-inducing demons in hopes of banishing them forever.
  3. Emotions and Feelings – Music that lacks vocals, such as an instrumental performance, can help people come to grips with their emotions and learn how to express their feelings in healthy ways.
  4. Memory Enhancement – Because music reaches both sides of the brain equally, it is the perfect tool to help achieve cognitive goals that are often associated with nonverbal learning disorders.

Music therapists work in clinical, hospital, and educational facilities. There are times when they are called to work in correctional facilities, when music therapy is needed to help rehabilitate someone who is incarcerated.

Music versus Medication

Medication can do only so much to help heal someone after some type of tragedy, like a car accident, on the job mishap, heart attack, or a stroke. Take for instance Bill Forester, a gentleman who in 2009 had a stroke that left him in a coma for 3 days.

Doctors told his family not to expect Forester to ever get out of bed again, much less speak or communicate. However, his family was not willing to accept that defeatist style mindset and enrolled Forester in music therapy sessions at the Cleveland Clinic where they went.

In the three years since his stroke, Forester has regained not only his ability to speak and get out of bed, but also resume much of his daily activities from before his stroke – including jogging! As his progress continues his goals include resuming his former career.

According to Lisa Gallagher, Forester’s music therapist, “The primary thing we do is work on his speech – singing songs, and then talking about the songs so he can practice that way, too.” He also takes adult piano lessons as part of his therapy.

The finger exercises on the piano keyboard help Forester regain strength in his hands. Because therapists can print the notes right on the piano or keyboard keys, patients are not required to have any prior piano lessons or other type of music ability at all.

In addition to the piano, music therapists might use string, percussion, or brass instruments, or even vocals that lack any type of instrumental accompaniment. Some music therapists also use non-traditional instruments like the harmonica, autoharp, or the recorder.

One Therapy to Address Multiple Skills

Music therapy covers a broad range of skills. Because disorders on the autism spectrum carry a broad range of symptoms, music therapy strategies are perfect for nearly every one of them, and provide assistance with everything from fine motor skills to social graces.

As with most other types of therapy, people can attend music therapy sessions one-on-one or in a group setting. And thanks to the versatility of the practice, how a person attends music therapy sessions and what their goals are will be as unique as their own DNA.

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