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Music Therapy and the Emergence of Spoken Language in Children with Autism

Music Therapy and the Emergence of Spoken Language in Children with Autism
Christine Barton
June 9, 2008


'My child knew music before he knew words.'
Kim, mother of an 8 year-old boy with autism and profound hearing loss.


In 2007, the Center for Disease Control Prevention estimated that the prevalence of autism in the United States had risen to 1 in 150 children (Autism Society of America, 2008). Since boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed as girls, their incidence rate is an alarming 1 in 94 (Autism Society of America). This makes autism the fastest growing diagnosis in the United States, more than AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined (Autism Speaks, 2008). The cause(s) of autism are still elusive, but environmental as well as genetic factors appear to contribute to its increasing occurrence (Autism Society of America). This crisis has focused national attention on the monetary, as well as personal costs, to the families of these children. And the race is on to find the treatments that yield the best outcomes. One of the positive predictors of social and intellectual development in children with autism is the acquisition of functional language by five years of age (Thaut, 1999). In this author's experience, music therapy is an intervention that can increase communicative behaviors in young children with autism. This article will briefly define autism, explain the effectiveness of music as a therapeutic tool with autistic children, look at the connection between music and language, and finally, provide examples of music therapy in action and ways to incorporate it into speech-language intervention sessions.

Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism is a complex, neurologically based developmental disorder (Autism Speaks, 2008). It is often referred to as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) because delays in certain areas of functioning impact growth in other areas of development. It is a lifelong condition for which there is no known cause, protection, cure, or completely reliable treatment. However, early intervention can have a positive impact on an individual's ability to maximize the effectiveness of existing treatments (Autism Speaks). Autism is also frequently referred to as a spectrum disorder (ASD), meaning that there are many levels of developmental delay ranging anywhere from very mild to profoundly severe (Berger, 2002). On one end of the spectrum is the high-functioning, communicative individual, on the other, the minimally functional, nonverbal individual with severe developmental disabilities.

Some of the hallmarks of the disorder include:

  • A lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (echolalia, hand flapping, twirling objects)
  • Minimal direct eye contact
  • Unusual play or lack of creative play
  • Lack of interest in peers (Autism Society of America, 2008).

Children with an ASD may demonstrate some or all of these traits and to varying degrees.

Music and Children with Autism

When autism was first observed and defined by Leo Kanner in 1943, he noted a particular precocious musical orientation in the young boys he studied. At the age of one year, one boy "could hum and sing many tunes accurately" (Kanner, 1943, p.1). From a review of the literature regarding music and children with autism, Thaut concluded that:

  1. "Many autistic children perform unusually well in musical areas in comparison with most other areas of their behavior, as well as in comparison with many normal children.
  2. Many autistic children respond more frequently and appropriately to music than to other auditory stimuli.
  3. Little is known about the reasons for the musical responsiveness of autistic children. However, the most promising explanation may lie in the knowledge of brain dysfunction and perceptual processes of autistic children" (1990, p. 171).

As these conclusions suggest, music is an effective therapeutic tool to use in treatment of the child with ASD.

christine barton

Christine Barton

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