autism, music therapy, music therapy for autism, special needs

What KIND of music works best for autism?

child with headphones

One of my most frequently asked questions: WHY does music work so well with autism? And my short answer is typically something like: The inherent structure in music; the rhythm, timbre, structure, ability to evoke emotions, and the predictability all tie together to draw in the interest and confidence of a child. You can see the anticipation as they get so excited that they bounce and twirl their fingers as they await their part in a song.

But what kind of music works best? A brilliant music therapist in Florida just shared her Master’s thesis. Amy Kalas says:

“I decided to focus on autism and joint attention (one of the earliest manifestations & most characteristics features of the social deficits in ASD). The purpose of my study was to see what kind of music (simple music or complex music) would be most effective in eliciting joint attention in children with ASD. Thirty children with ASD participated in the study. Fifteen of the participants were diagnosed with severe ASD and 15 were diagnosed with mild/moderate ASD. Each participant took part in six, 10-minute individual music conditions (3 simple & 3 complex) over a 3-week period. Each condition was designed to elicit responses to joint attention…”

Although this is in Music Therapy Speak, it’s still completely readable for parents. Because the short answer is: it depends on where your child lies on the spectrum.

Start with her blog.

Read the published journal article

Or check out her thesis.

Thanks for sharing, Amy. You are brilliant!

5 thoughts on “What KIND of music works best for autism?”

  1. Hmmm.
    A piece of music my son may enjoy, I might find obnoxious, and vice versa, Sometimes we meet in the middle. My son is on the “severe” end of the spectrum. I am not on it,
    Being Autistic or Neurologically Atypical is irrelevant, when it comes to the appreciation of music. It is simply a matter of taste. Does Amy Kalas enjoy ALL types music? I doubt it. Do you?

    1. I hear you and I appreciate your comment. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who enjoyed ALL types of music. We’re certainly not attempting to imply as much. I absolutely agree with you: music appreciation is absolutely a matter of taste. But if we keep ‘simply’ out of that statement and consider some of the science behind it, we, or I, can learn a lot and take a perspective that is helpful in my work as a music therapist. The interesting component to consider is the physiologic response to different levels of music – like a song being sung without any accompaniment vs. a symphony. This research is about simple vs. complex music being used for therapeutic intentions. Perhaps the language we’re using isn’t helpful for the interpretations you’re making.

      1. I understand the concept completely. My son love’s Mahler’s piano quartet in A minor, loves it. A pretty dark piece and one I would consider “complex” However, he finds the Mickey Mouse clubhouse song, distasteful. He will clamp his hands over his ears and stim, quite wildly. Beethoven’s appassionata Sonata in F minor, will illicit the same stimming behavior. He love’s the Happy birthday song, when there are no birthdays. It soothes him. Pretty simple ditty.
        As a parent, it is very obvious to me, that my son has subjectivity, and knows what he likes and dislikes, musically speaking.

        By no means do I wish to disedify your work. I am grateful to all the therapists involved in my son’s development. However, I am in the trenches 24/7 and trust my sense of rhythm and tempo and how it is effects my particular Autistic child.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing about my thesis Angie! I’d just like to clear up that in my thesis I’m not talking about the type of music therapy individuals with autism prefer, I’m talking about what type of music is most effective in eliciting joint attention. From there I make conclusions in my discussion about what type of music might be more effective during music therapy. In this case, for the 30 participants I saw, simple music was more effective in eliciting joint attention than complex music. I just wanted to clear up that I was not discussing musical preferences of individuals with autism, as I realize those can vary greatly from person to person.

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