Does Music Therapy Work? Here’s What a Recent Study Says…

Improvisational music therapy is an intervention method that is meant to improve social communicative skills in those with autism. This type of therapy is often child-led, in which a child sings or plays an instrument, and the therapist follows along to the…ahem…beat of the child’s own drum to create music.

However, a new study indicates that it might not actually be all that effective of an intervention for most kids on the spectrum.

The international study, published in JAMA, was conducted across nine countries and involved 364 autistic children ranging in age from four to seven years old. Those countries included the United States, Australia, Austria, Israel, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Korea, Italy, and Norway.

Adobe Stock/biker3
Adobe Stock/biker3

All of the children in the study received standard intervention therapies. However, half of them also received improvisational music therapy in addition to the more traditional therapy.

After five months, it turned out that those who had received improvisational music therapy had similar results to those who had gotten traditional therapy alone. Which indicates that music therapy didn’t really improve the core symptoms of autism.

Does this mean that music therapy is essentially useless? Not necessarily.

“Since the very first descriptions of autism in the 1940s, it has been noted that many people with autism have a special interest in music,” senior author Christian Gold said. “Music therapists can help them to pursue that interest. If they also learn something about social communication through that, even better. But the pursuit of music or music therapy should not be guided primarily by the hope to reduce core symptoms of autism, because that may not be the result.”

Adobe Stock/mimagephotos
Adobe Stock/mimagephotos

Gold also noted that music therapy may be better for those with more significant communication challenges due to the fact that music therapy uses…well, music instead of verbal language.

Though the study was large—a definite strength—there was a big flaw with it: it was conducted across nine different countries and 10 different music therapy centers, so music therapy treatments may have varied widely from country to country.

In any case, more studies are needed. In the meantime, parents should go with their gut when deciding upon a therapy, as every child is different. If your child responds well to music, and you think music therapy could be beneficial in some way, it’s an option. And, as always, talk to your child’s doctor if you have any questions, concerns, or doubts.

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