Is Music Therapy effective for autistic children?

The Autism Centre of Excellence at Cambridge (ACE) is pleased to announce £1 million funding for a music therapy research project, in conjunction with Rosetrees and Stoneygate Trusts: “A nationwide randomised controlled trial on the effectiveness of improvisational music therapy for autistic children”.

What is Music Therapy?

Improvisational music therapy involves the therapist and child spontaneously creating music together using singing, playing, and movement. The music therapist follows the child’s interests and focus of attention which aims to facilitate the child’s social communication development.

It is well documented that engaging in musical experiences may help to promote social engagement and children, in particular, react positively to music.

The key necessary behaviours for social engagement which occur naturally in music-making, are:

  • Joint attention
  • Eye contact
  • Turn-taking

These are fundamental components of music therapy. This method of support may be more appealing and comfortable to autistic children than other approaches (e.g., talking therapies) as music therapy may be less confusing than spoken language.

Music therapy also brings the potential for predictability and anticipation brought about by musical structure. Evidence is needed about whether music therapy is effective for autistic children in terms of supporting their communication and social skills.

Impact of the study

Music therapy has the potential to improve the lives of autistic individuals and their families, in relation to wellbeing as well as helping them to cope with activities in everyday life. One study reported more instances of ‘joy’ and ‘emotional synchronicity’ when autistic children are engaged in improvisational music therapy compared to play.

The new study, carried out at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, will conduct a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) with 200 autistic children aged 7 to 11 years old to test the effectiveness of music therapy.