Music therapy can be a complementary treatment to ABA therapy and other interventions for autism. 


It uses interactive musical activities to improve communication, social, and emotional skills in children with autism. 


Here’s how music therapy works and what you can expect from a therapy session. 

What Is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is an evidence-based approach where music is used to teach new physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills and build upon existing ones in children and adults with special needs. Music therapy is not a stand-alone treatment. It is used as a complementary therapy along with applied behavior analysis (ABA) and other types of interventions.


Music therapy has been used in the United States since the early to mid-1900s. Austrian-American psychiatrist Leo Kanner (1894-1981) was the first music therapist to work with children with autism. He demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of music for children’s cognitive development and communication. 

Music therapy is based on two methods: 


  • The passive (receptive) method which involves listening to music, and 
  • The active method where the child plays an active role in creating music. 


Music therapists originally used only the receptive method, whereas today it is frequently combined with the active form that allows improvisation and the expression of feelings.

Music therapy intervention techniques

The most commonly used intervention techniques in music therapy include: 

  • Listening to live or recorded music
  • Interactive educational activities
  • Composition and songwriting
  • Improvisation.

The goal of these techniques is to strengthen different skills in the therapeutic context to then gradually transfer them to other parts of daily life.

Who practices music therapy?

Music therapy is practiced by licensed, board-certified music therapists who have obtained the following qualifications: 


  • Bachelor’s degree or higher from a college or university program approved by an American Music Therapy Association (AMTA)
  • Successfully completed national examination by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT)
  • A minimum of 1,200 hours of supervised clinical work through internship programs.


Music therapists have an excellent understanding of how listening to certain types of music, playing an instrument, or participating in interactive activities like singing or dancing can change reactions in the brain and influence emotions and behaviors. 


Music therapists are typically part of a multidisciplinary team where they work together with other professionals to ensure that the therapeutic goals are being achieved. 

Approaches to music therapy

Music therapists use different approaches, for example:

Behavioral approach

The behavioral approach focuses on the changes in the child’s behavior in response to music.

Sensory integration approach

The sensory integration approach can help children who are hypersensitive or hyposensitive to stimuli or display sensory-seeking behaviors to manage their physical reactions.

Creative approach

The creative approach to music therapy involves improvising and composing music in order to improve motor skills, cognition, memory, and sociability.

Benefits of Music Therapy

Numerous research studies have shown the immense benefits that music therapy has for children with autism. 


Music can rewire the brains of children with autism and improve their neural connections, helping them reduce undesirable behaviors and enhance social and other skills. What’s more, studies have indicated that interactive activities involving music have more effect on autistic children than activities that don’t involve music.


Below, we list the main benefits of music therapy on children with autism.

Improve communication

Most children with autism spectrum disorder experience at least some degree of verbal and non-verbal communication issues. Music therapy is a fun and effective way to promote communication in autistic kids through listening to songs and creating music. These are easier ways of conveying thoughts and emotions than verbal communication.


It also allows non-verbal or children with limited communication skills to find alternative ways to communicate by singing, dancing, playing instruments, and writing songs. Music improvisation and other activities can help them express emotions like happiness, anger, fear, and sadness without having to use words. 

Enhance social skills

Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulties with social interaction, interpreting other people’s behaviors, and knowing how to act around others. Music can be used to enhance social skills, like taking initiative, making eye contact, sharing, and waiting for a turn. This form of therapy teaches children how to participate in activities in more appropriate and socially acceptable ways. 

Regulate emotions

Music has a strong impact on emotions. It is a valuable tool for helping children with autism regulate stress and find calm in challenging situations. Music therapists use specific melodies, rhythms, and sounds to help children express feelings such as frustration or anxiety. 

Reduce challenging behaviors

Restlessness, fidgeting, and inattentiveness are frequent challenging behaviors among kids with autism. Since hearing and motor functions are controlled in the same parts of the brain, music therapy can effectively improve these behaviors. Due to its calming effect, music can also help reduce aggression, self-injuries, and temper tantrums in children with autism. 

Sensory integration

Most children on the autism spectrum experience sensory issues such as hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity (oversensitivity). While some children are hypersensitive to the information they receive through their senses, causing them to avoid these sensations, hypersensitive kids find loud noises, bright lights, and touch overwhelming. Music therapy may help children with sensory aversions cope with sound and other sensitivities and improve sensory integration. 

Learn new skills

Because children with autism are often able to focus better on information that is sung than on spoken language, music therapy can be an effective way to help them learn new skills. This can be done by pairing each skill with a musical cue, for example, a therapist may write lyrics about taking turns and sharing to the melody the child is familiar with. Once the child has mastered the skill, cues are no longer necessary. 

Heighten self-confidence

Music therapy offers a sense of security and familiarity, encouraging children with autism to attempt new tasks and foster a sense of achievement. Because there can be no mistakes in improvisation, children can easily build their confidence while playing a musical instrument. In fact, many children with autism have discovered outstanding musical abilities through music therapy. 

Establish stronger family bonds

Family-centered music therapy can help improve communication between children on the spectrum and their family members by teaching verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Besides, playing instruments or listening to music together promotes the feeling of closeness and understanding among family members.

Other benefits of music therapy

  • Increase vocalization and verbalization 
  • Facilitate vocabulary comprehension
  • Enhance cognitive functions, such as attention and memory
  • Enhance auditory processing
  • Improve alertness, concentration, attention, and motivation
  • Improve body awareness and coordination
  • Help develop sensory-motor and perceptual-motor skills
  • Improve fine-motor and gross-motor skills
  • Enhance body awareness and coordination
  • Help identify and appropriately express emotions
  • Reduce negative and self-stimulatory behaviors
  • Learn musical skills
  • Improve independence.

Music therapists use a variety of musical activities to teach children with autism new skills and behaviors. Here’s what you can expect from your child’s music therapy session.

What Does a Music Therapy Session Look Like?

Music therapists follow four steps when creating a therapy session for autistic children: assessment, goal-setting, activities, and evaluation.


The treatment starts by assessing the child in order to find out their specific needs. Since music therapy for autistic children is almost always used along with other forms of interventions, the therapist will typically consult your child’s pediatrician and other specialists for additional background information.

Goal setting

Once the assessment is completed, the therapist will develop an individualized treatment plan that includes specific goals and objectives for your child.


The plan may include one or more of the following therapy forms:

  • Receptive music therapy that involves listening to recorded or live music
  • Compositional music therapy where the child creates music or writes lyrics to existing melodies
  • Improvisational music therapy where the therapist helps the child create music
  • Recreative music therapy that involves learning to play an instrument
  • Activity music therapy that includes musical games such as musical chairs or musical emotions bingo. 


During music therapy sessions, the therapist will introduce activities that aim at the specific needs determined during the assessment phase. These activities may include songwriting, moving to music and dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, listening to music, working in groups, and improvising.


Music therapy sessions can take place at home, school, outpatient clinics, private practices, and other healthcare and educational settings. Therapy can be provided in several different ways: 


  • One-on-one customized treatment sessions where the therapist works with the child on achieving individual goals
  • Group sessions where the focus is on the interaction with peers
  • Family-centered therapy sessions where family members participate in the treatment. 


Music therapists regularly evaluate the music therapy programs to ensure that the child is learning new skills according to the therapy plan. Based on the child’s progress, they can make necessary adjustments.

How Long Is a Music Therapy Session?

The length of a music therapy session depends on the individual needs of each child. Sessions may last anywhere between a few minutes to an hour. Most children attend sessions once a week for about 20-50 minutes. 



If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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