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Music Therapy for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

The Therapeutic Power of Music – Music occupies a significant place in human activity across cultures, reflecting its deeply rooted biological origins. A growing body of evidence indicates that the physiology of the human brain is specialized for musical perception and activity. Our sensitivity to music is lifelong, beginning even before birth. Musicality appears to survive considerable cognitive and neurological impairment. The therapeutic power of music lies in this innate responsiveness to music, which is found in all people regardless of developmental level or extent of musical training.

In music therapy, this power is harnessed to bring about the fulfillment of specific, individualized clinical goals. The American Music Therapy Association states: “Music therapy is an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals of all ages. Music therapy improves the quality of life for persons who are well and meets the needs of children and adults with disabilities or illnesses.”

Music and Development

Music contributes to all areas of development. Because music is processed in both hemispheres of the brain, musical experiences promote neurological and perceptual integration. Active engagement in musical play allows participants to learn through doing—acting upon their environment and discovering the consequences.

Cognitive development is stimulated by rhythmic and melodic patterns within music. This reinforces mathematical concepts, such as counting, and the perception of contrasts: differences between high and low pitches, fast and slow tempos, and loud and soft dynamics. Songs support children’s learning of classroom material, allowing for repetition in a playfully varied manner. By anticipating the form of a musical phrase, a child builds the capacity to focus for longer periods of time. The combination of order and freedom in music is conducive to the development of flexibility, both inside and outside the music room.

Perhaps most importantly, successful participation in creative musical activity builds self-confidence and self-esteem. Emotional development is encouraged through self-expression in singing and instrument playing, or role-playing in musical dramas. A vast range of emotional experience and expression is possible through music.

The basic elements of music—rhythm, tempo or pulse, melody, and intensity—are intimately connected with the production of speech; hence, music serves to highlight the stress patterns and contours of speech. Singing enhances auditory perception and processing, vocal quality, production of speech sounds, and the learning and retention of language.

Musical exchanges—the call-and-response of singing or playing melodic or rhythmic phrases—help develop the elements of reciprocal interaction that are necessary for communication. Especially in group sessions, music therapy provides opportunities for engaging in cooperative activity, taking turns, appreciating others’ contributions, and building a sense of belonging and community.

Music in the Treatment of Autism

Core features of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) include difficulties in communication and social interaction. As described above, these are significant goal areas in music therapy. For individuals with ASD, non-verbal elements of communication may be “hard to read,” including speech inflection, eye contact, facial expression, and body language. Even for people with very limited verbal skills, meaningful communication can occur through music.

Music therapy calls upon the innate musical responsiveness of those with ASD as a basis for developing curiosity and interest in their peers. While they may face considerable challenges in classrooms and other social settings, music can be an exciting way of motivating people with ASD to relate to others.

Music is a creative medium that can be tailored to the needs of each individual. Many with ASD demonstrate unusual perceptiveness of pitch, melody, or rhythm. Music therapy builds on these strengths and enables those with ASD to share their private worlds

Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy

Nordoff-Robbins music therapy has become internationally recognized over the past four decades. The approach grew from the pioneering collaboration of Dr. Paul Nordoff, American pianist and composer, and Dr. Clive Robbins, British special educator. They used music as a means for engaging children with autism, developmental delays, emotional disturbances, and physical challenges, many of whom were unable to communicate verbally. Through drawing children into active music making, they found that music effectively accessed the healthy core potential for growth and development within each child—what they called the “music child”—beneath the barriers imposed by the child’s condition.

Nordoff-Robbins music therapists employ both spontaneously improvised and pre-composed music, using a variety of conventional and specialized instruments. Clients do not need to have prior musical skill or training. With children and adolescents, a team of two therapists work together, with one providing the music on piano or guitar while the other facilitates the client’s participation when necessary.

To initially engage the client, the therapist plays music to reflect the client’s physical presence and mood. When the client initiates the music, the therapist joins in and together they enter into shared creative musical activity, both instrumental and vocal. Within this musical interaction, the therapeutic relationship develops, and clinical goals for the client are continually addressed.
The Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at NYU Steinhardt

The Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University, founded in 1989, offers individual and group music therapy sessions to clients of all ages. The work is funded by foundations, corporations, and individuals. The Center also provides advanced training to music therapists, holds workshops, publishes musical and instructional materials, and conducts research.

Current research at the Center is focused on the effects of Nordoff-Robbins music therapy on the development of communication and social interaction in young children with developmental disabilities, particularly those with ASD. A long-term project is underway to establish research partnerships with therapeutic preschools in New York City. The ultimate aim of this project is to enhance the quality and scope of music therapy services to children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Thanks in part to NYU’s ongoing support of Nordoff-Robbins music therapy, the Center is entering its twentieth year of service. We are currently conducting intake sessions for September enrollment. Placement in individual and/or group music therapy is available Monday through Saturday. Please call 212-998-5151 to begin the enrollment process.

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