The Music “Experience” in Autism

As music therapists we use music as a tool for functional improvements in persons who have disabilities. We recognize that music has value outside of “music therapy treatment” in community, recreation, and worship.  Most of us ask our clients about what music therapy listen to; but how often do we stop and ask our clients who have autism “why do you listen to music”? A recent research study did just that.

Allen et al. (2009) interviewed 9 persons with Aspergers and 3 persons with autism about their experiences with music, preferences of music, and reasons for listening to music. Their findings show that persons with ASD listen to music for many of the same reasons that typical persons listen to music, including mood change, “therapy”, belonging (feeling a part of something), and for personal development (performance). In comparison with other studies on typical persons, the authors found that the persons with autism used more internally-focused terms (arousal) when describing their relationship with music (as opposed to emotive language).

A couple (okay a lot) of things to point out with this study. This study had a small sample size, with only 12 people interviewed. Furthermore, there was no control group; rather, the authors used data from other studies that asked similar questions of typically-developing (TD) persons. The authors make it clear that they didn’t use a control group and they state that they feel the scope of prior research has covered this topic with TD populations. The age range of the participants was wide with participants from 21-65 years of age. Thats asking the same questions to persons who are from completely different generations. Lastly, two out of three of the participants with autism were categorized as outliers, not engaging with music in the same way as the other participants. Of the remaining participants, five were interested in music as children (preferring mostly classical music) and five didn’t get interested in music until their teenage years (preferring mostly pop music).

What can we do with this in the clinic?   I don’t know about you, but I’ve never asked my clients with autism why or how they listen to music – their parents just usually tell me that “he loves music”…  By knowing how clients use music in their personal lives I may be  better able to “tap into” their use of music for function such as social involvement, communication, etc… On the other hand, if something is used for personal enjoyment it may be something to save for just that – enjoyment (as opposed to work). Although music in my sessions is motivating and “fun”, these children work really hard in music therapy; so perhaps letting them keep their music as their music would be more beneficial.

Secondly, what of the children who do not engage with music outside of movie scripts? I have seen many of these children where all they want to hear is Disney movie songs. Singing these songs risks having the entire move reenacted (which often leads to a meltdown). However, in my experience, these children have often done very well in music therapy, especially when we don’t use their preferred (i.e., perseveration) music. It seems that the structure, rhythm, and predictability of “music therapy” music can help with achieving non-musical goals, despite having a limited relationship with music in their daily lives.

Lastly, what about those children who do not interact with music? I usually change the stimuli/approach and try some different ways of communicating with the child through music. I’ll call in someone with more experience to see if I am missing something. If still no response, this child may not be a candidate for music therapy since music therapy requires that there be a change in behavior with music engagement.



Allen R, Hill E, Heaton P. (2009). ‘Hath charms to soothe . . .’: an exploratory study of how high-functioning adults with ASD experience music. Autism, 13(1), 21-41.PMID: 19176575

One thought on “The Music “Experience” in Autism

  1. Patti Catalano

    Interesting concept – just asking the person with ASD why they like music. If they can articulate this, we might hear some fascinating answers. I’ve struggled sometimes with some of my clients in that same manner – should I just leave music as something that is theirs to enjoy in their way or should I use it and make it “work” for them? Sometimes I do use music that is “scripted” for them to create a bridge where I can engage them and hopefully open a door enough to move forward without the perseverative possibility. I noticed this when I transitioned into this job and I had to connect with clients who were used to their previous therapist. First I had to find a way to engage them and have them stay in the room! Otherwise, you’re right – I’m using music that they will only associate with one thing and there won’t be any change through it. It’s a fine line sometimes.

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