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Music Therapy and Autism
In the Special Education Setting-

Defining Music Therapy

Due to its unique characteristics when compared with spoken language or the visual modality, music is an effective tool to mediate change in non-musical functioning for certain individuals. Research supports parallels between speech/singing, rhythm/motor behavior, memory for song/memory for academic material, and overall ability of preferred music to enhance mood, attention, and behavior to optimize the student's ability to learn and interact. Music therapists receive specialized training to address these areas by completing a baccalaureate or advanced degree program in music therapy in addition to national board certification.

Within a music therapy session, a targeted task relating to an IEP goal (e.g., counting to 10, learning prepositions, following a 2-step direction, taking turns, or describing an object) is presented through song or rhythmic cueing. The focus of sessions is first to provide the student with an assist through musical cueing followed by fading of music to aid in transfer to the non-music setting.

Link Between Autism and Music

Research documents that students with autism often exhibit a high level of preference for the music modality and show little deficit in processing musical components although they may have processing difficulties in non-musical areas. Many individuals with autism demonstrate a highly accurate memory for song lyrics, increased initiation of singing compared with speaking, and significant increases in attention, motivation, and emotional engagement during music activities.

Music Therapy as a Related Service

Before referring a student for an evaluation, the IEP team first considers whether the student has demonstrated enhanced responses to music and is also in need of supplemental assistance due to insufficient progress or severity of needs. If this is the case, a direct evaluation is then conducted to determine if the student's performance is significantly improved on IEP-related tasks when musical cueing is used. Because music therapy is an "overlap" service, it is not considered necessary if the student can achieve similar levels of success through services already being offered. If the student does qualify, services are provided by a credentialed music therapist on a direct or consult basis.

For additional questions or criteria sheet for school evaluations, please contact Michelle Lazar, MT-BC, Director of Coast Music Therapy and Consulting at (858) 453-5211

Coast Music Therapy: Revised 3/01

Rationale For Music Therapy Interventions

Cognitive / Academic

Songs act as a "mnemonic" device to aid in memory of new or difficult academic concepts by organizing information into smaller chunks making it easier to encode and retain. Musical presentation also provides an optimal learning environment for those students who are highly attentive to music activities but are often distractible with other modalities. Educational research supports that our ability to learn and later use new concepts and information is best when we are motivated and the material presented is meaningful to us.

Communication / Social Interaction

Because singing and speech share many similarities, yet are accessed differently by the brain, music strategies can be used as a rehabilitative approach to functional communication. Language skills such as asking and answering questions, maintaining a conversation, and using new vocabulary are embedded in song lyrics that the student is encouraged to sing during sessions followed by fading of music to spoken language.

In small groups, musical instruments and interactive songs are presented to address turn-taking, cooperative interaction, and other social skills including learning and role playing "social stories." Individualized tapes are often made for additional home practice of skills.

Motor Abilities

Research is highly conclusive in supporting rhythm as an external timekeeper for movement. Due to the nature of educational motor goals (e.g., handwriting, cutting, using playground equipment, etc.), music therapy is most often recommended as a direct intervention for students with severe orthopedic impairments, or basic goals such as imitating movement. In these cases, musical instruments are used with song cueing to target various grasps, improve coordination, and increase duration of participation. For higher functioning students, the music therapist can offer consult to the adapted physical education provider, occupational therapist, or physical therapist if needed.

Behavior / Sensory Concerns

These areas are frequently addressed through consult if it is shown that music is one of the key motivators for a particular student. Activities are designed to use music as a reward, contingency, transition aid, or to calm the student.

For additional questions or criteria sheet for school evaluations, please contact Michelle Lazar, MT-BC, Director of Coast Music Therapy and Consulting at (858) 453-5211

Coast Music Therapy: Revised 3/01


Autism is a complex disorder. The information presented here is, of necessity, general in nature. Please consult with a qualified professional concerning your specific questions. The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors.


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