music therapy, music therapy for autism, special needs

Improvisational music therapy for ASD

There’s an extremely well written article recently published in the Journal of Music Therapy entitled Common Characteristics of Improvisational Approaches in Music Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The article defines the ways in which improvisational music therapy (IMT) can be used with ASD and explains many of the rationales and motives behind the actions of a music therapist. I strongly recommend that practitioners, families and caretakers read this article and wanted to highlight some of the key elements with which Music Therapy Services of Portland resonates and strives to implement these methodologies. Please see endnotes for the many resources used within this article.

IMT employs improvising as a primary therapeutic experience where the client and therapist spontaneously create music using singing, playing, and movement (Bruscia, 2014). IMT is described as a procedure of intervention that makes use of the potential for social engagement and expression of emotions occurring through improvisational music making (Geretsegger, Holck, & Gold, 2012). Improvised music can be made to be very predictable, containing repetitions at different levels while at the same time providing “controlled” flexibility in the form of variations in melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, or dynamics (Wigram, 2004; Wigram & Elefant, 2009).

Targeted areas of interventions for individuals with ASD include: 

  • imitation (e.g., Hobson & Hobson, 2008; Landa, 2007)
  • joint attention (Leekam, López, & Moore, 2000)
  • reciprocity (Landa, 2007)
  • affective sharing (Wetherby et al., 2004)
  • initiation of interaction (Landa, 2007; Landa, Holman, & Garrett-Mayer, 2007).

These interventions share characteristics such as:

  • following the child’s lead
  • encouraging initiations from the child
  • responding to all types of communicative behavior as if it was purposeful
  • focusing on emotional expression
  • adjusting any language and social input to the child’s developmental stage and attentional focus (Ingersoll et al., 2005).

Within this IMT framework, a child-centered approach is incorporated in which active, spontaneous music making enhances the relationship between the child and therapist. The therapist generally follows the child’s focus of attention, behaviors, and interests to facilitate growth in the child’s social communicative skills and promote development in other areas of need, such as awareness and attention, sense of self, or self-efficacy (Bruscia, 1998; Kim, 2006; Kim, Wigram, & Gold, 2008, 2009; Wigram, 2002).

Involving parents/caregivers in the process can support both children and parents in building interactions with one another and facilitating the generalization of therapy outcomes into the child’s and caregivers’ everyday life (Oldfield, 2006; Warwick, 1995). This involvement may include family members directly in therapy sessions (Thompson, McFerran, & Gold, 2013), describing the activities to parents upon completion of the sessions, or even recording the sessions and inviting the family to watch the sessions at home together. 


Geretsegger, M., Holck, U., Carpente, J., Elefant, C., Kim, J., Gold, C. (2015). Common Characteristics of Improvisational Approaches in Music Therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Developing Treatment Guidelines.  Journal of Music Therapy, 52(2), 258–281 doi:10.1093/jmt/thv005

Accordino, R., Comer, R. & Heller, W. B. (2007). Searching for music’s potential: A critical examination of research on music therapy with individuals with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1, 101–115. doi:10.1016/j. rasd.2006.08.002

Bruscia, K. E. (1998). Defining music therapy (2nd ed.). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bruscia, K. E. (2014). Defining music therapy (3rd ed.). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Geretsegger, M., Holck, U., & Gold, C. (2012). Randomised controlled trial of improvisational music therapy’s effectiveness for children with autism spectrum disorders (TIME-A): Study protocol. BMC Pediatrics, 12(2). doi:10.1186/1471-2431-12-2

Gold, C., Wigram, T., & Voracek, M. (2007). Predictors of change in music therapy with children and adolescents: The role of therapeutic techniques. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 80(4), 577–589.

Hobson, R. P., & Hobson, J. A. (2008). Dissociable aspects of imitation: A study in autism. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 101, 170–185. doi:10.1016/j. jecp.2008.04.007
Ingersoll, B., Dvortcsak, A., Whalen, C., & Sikora, D. (2005). The effects of a developmental, social-pragmatic language intervention on rate of expressive language production in young children with autistic spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 20, 213–222. doi:10.1177/1088357605020004 0301

Kim, J. (2006). The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviours in children with autistic spectrum disorder (PhD thesis, Aalborg University).

Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2008). The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviors in autistic children: A randomized controlled study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1758–1766. doi:10.1007/ s10803-008-0566-6

Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13, 389–409. doi:10.1177/1362361309105660

Landa, R. (2007). Early communication development and intervention for children with autism. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13, 16–25. doi:10.1002/mrdd.20134

Landa, R. J., Holman, K. C., & Garrett-Mayer, E. (2007). Social and communication development in toddlers with early and later diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 853–864. doi:10.1001/ archpsyc.64.7.853

Leekam, S. R., López, B., & Moore, C. (2000). Attention and joint attention in preschool children with autism. Developmental Psychology, 36, 261–273. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.36.2.261
Oldfield, A. (2006). Interactive music therapy—A positive approach: Music therapy at a child development centre. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Thompson, G. A., McFerran, K. S., & Gold, C. (2013). Family-centred music therapy to promote social engagement in young children with severe autism spectrum disorder: A randomized controlled study. Child: Care, Health, and Development, 40(6), 840–852.

Warwick, A. (1995). Music therapy in the education service: Research with autistic children and their mothers. In T. Wigram, B. Saperston, & R. West (Eds.), The art and science of music therapy: A handbook (pp. 209–225). Oxford: Routledge.

Wetherby, A. M., Woods, J., Allen, L., Cleary, J., Dickinson, H., & Lord, C. (2004). Early indicators of autism spectrum disorders in the second year of life. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 473–493. doi:10.1007/s10803-004-2544-y

Wigram, T. (2002). Indications in music therapy: Evidence from assessment that can identify the expectations of music therapy as a treatment for autistic spectrum disorder (ASD): Meeting the challenge of evidence-based practice. British Journal of Music Therapy, 16, 11–28.

Wigram, T. (2004). Improvisation: Methods and techniques for music therapy clinicians, educators, and students. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Wigram, T., & Elefant, C. (2009). Therapeutic dialogues in music: Nurturing musi- cality of communication in children with autistic spectrum disorder and Rett syndrome. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative musicality (pp. 423–446). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

autism, music therapy, music therapy group

How sensory integration plays into music therapy groups

At Music Therapy Services of Portland, we love facilitating small groups. The art of creating an ideal music therapy group for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum is a challenge that involves the help of parents, caretakers, and allied health professionals. One of the most important elements that we take into consideration is sensory processing. Linn Wakeford’s chapter in Early Childhood Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders explains that researchers have categorized sensory processing into three primary patterns:

  • Hypo-responsiveness (under responsiveness)
  • Hyper-responsiveness (overly responsive)
  • Sensory seeking behaviors

Many children are a mix of some hyper-responsive patterns and other hypo-responsive patterns. The sensory systems include: auditory, visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, vestibular, and proprioceptive.

As a music therapist, being aware of the sensory systems of each individual in a group is critical and impacts the instruments and interventions I utilize.  So how can parents help their child end up in the most appropriate music therapy group? Consider how your child responds to each of these musical elements:

  • Intensity – Does she prefer loud or soft sounds?
  • Frequency – Does he want the same sound over and over again or new sounds?
  • Duration – How long does she enjoy the sensation?
  • Rhythm – Does he enjoy rhythmic predictability or more variation and unpredictability?
  • Novelty – Does she respond aversively to change and newness?
  • Complexity – Does he enjoy multiple sensations within music like an orchestra or minimal instruments like only voice or guitar?

Many sensory processing theories incorporate adaptations and modifications that are much easier to address in a one-to-one setting. The children who are able to receive both individual and group music therapy sessions are certainly at an advantage because we are able to learn and address their sensory needs better. But even new children can succeed within a group when communication with parents and caretakers is incorporated. Our ultimate objective is to minimize the influence of sensory processing differences at all times.

Share what you notice about your child’s response to music by calling, sending an email, or completing our survey. If you’re a returning family, we invite you to resubmit our survey or provide us with any additional information you’ve observed or received from allied health professionals. Help us make your child’s music therapy group experience as beneficial as possible!

For those of you facilitating groups or individual sessions, consider the following:

  • The lighting
  • The temperature
  • Noises such as cars, the air conditioner, people talking
  • Do the kids need movement, deep pressure, or a familiar songs at a slow and steady tempo?
  • Can you have the child who is up and moving around be an assistant while the child under the blanket plays with the cabasa?

If a child gets up, walks to the corner, and comes back, they may be practicing self regulation. If they’re hiding under a blanket, they may be coping with their sensory needs. Ask yourself whether these actions are important or if you can work around them and possibly address these issues down the road. Otherwise, is there a way to meet these different needs within the various interventions of your group session?  We will address these questions more in an upcoming blog explaining the iso-principal approach during music therapy sessions.

Meanwhile, here are two additional video resources – the first is more for parents and the second is one you can watch with your child:

A detailed video by Chirp on sensory processing needs and strategies.

A Child’s View of Sensory Processing

Angie Kopshy, MM, MT-BC
Angie Kopshy, MM, MT-BC

Music Therapy Services of Portland is directed by board-certified music therapist, Angie Kopshy. Upon completion of her Master’s in Music from Boise State University, Angie returned to Portland to study music therapy at Marylhurst University. Music Therapy Services of Portland specializes on working with children on the autism spectrum. Angie is also a singer/songwriter with the band, Stoneface Honey.

music therapy for autism

Back to School Tips for Children Diagnosed with ASD

Whether your child has already started school or is still anticipating that first day of a new year, school can be a big source of stress. All children experience some anxiety when beginning a new year, but it can be particularly stressful for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Below is a list of tips we believe could help reduce your child’s anxiety as your family transitions into a new year of school!

Create a Resume for Your Child: A great way to inform teachers and staff about your child is to create a one-page fact sheet or “resume.” This sheet allows your child to better communicate his or her needs, strengths, and any relevant information to adults they may work with during the year. This also assists the teachers in better understanding how they can best accommodate your child through the learning process. Even though you will probably meet your child’s teacher before school begins, there are many other people with whom your child will interact during their time at school that you will not meet. Having more information about your child on file than just grades, date of birth, height, and hair color, will help others who interact with your child to do so in a more positive way.

Set and Keep a FUN Routine: Routines are very important to those diagnosed with ASD, as they limit the amount of anxiety-producing surprises. FUN routines can be especially helpful! There are different ways to reduce anxiety related to school, and one is to ensure that your child has a very positive experience waking up and getting ready each day. A morning could include singing a favorite song, eating a good breakfast, or even playing a game before they leave. Reviewing a schedule can be very helpful as well, as it allows your child to understand what to expect while not with you. If your child has trouble getting supplies together in the morning, use a simple song to help them remember the list!

This is an example set to “London Bridges.” This song is also helpful in transitioning your child from home to school by reminding where he or she is going and that it is almost time for school to begin.

Let’s get ready to go to school,

go to school, go to school.

Let’s get ready to go to school,

Go to school.

Pencils, Erasers, Homework,

Notebook, Lunchbox.

Pencils, Erasers, Homework,

Notebook, Lunchbox.

Reinforce Learning with Music: Most parents of children diagnosed with ASD notice their child has a unique learning style that isn’t always met in a traditional classroom setting. Sometimes, this means that their child will have a harder time remembering material they have been taught. Fortunately music can make all the difference in the world! Using music can help a child perceive, understand, memorize, and retain information they learn in school. As a parent, using music to help with homework is very beneficial and not as hard as you may think. Simply singing homework questions can help a child better process the information. Every child wants to have fun when they are learning, but for children diagnosed with ASD, fun is required!

Relaxing: Sometimes we forget how important it is to have down time, but it is especially important for kids diagnosed with ASD. When in school, children are told all day what they must do, and sometimes coming home to more rules and requirements can be anxiety provoking. To help your child to relax, play some music that they like, encourage them to read, or let them have time to play a game of their choice. To use music that encourages relaxation, choose to play something very familiar to your child and strive for a tempo close to 60, which is usually an ideal heart rate.

I hope that these tips will help you and your child have a successful, anxiety free school year!


Kate Harris, MT-BC

Music Therapy Services of Portland