Music Therapy and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

What is Music Therapy?

“Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”   (musictherapy.org, “What is Music Therapy”)

A favorite movement song:  “The Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” (try combining the last verse with “sea, chop, knee” instead of adding the foot)

Music Therapists must complete a bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy, which includes courses in psychology, human development, anatomy, special education, and core music classes. After coursework and music proficiency tests have been completed at the university level, they must complete a 6 month internship (1200 hours of clinical work), and pass a board certification exam.

Music Therapists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, mental health centers, geriatric facilities, hospice, special needs, etc. A music therapist conducts an assessment and develops a treatment plan that includes goals and objectives. Data is taken throughout the course of treatment that provides for ongoing assessment. Target goal areas may include communication, social skills, cognition, emotional regulation, behavior modification, and motor skills. Music is often performed live (usually on guitar, piano, or other accompanying instrument) in order to meet the needs of the client in the moment. Singing, improvisation, movement to music, instrument playing experiences, and songwriting are some of the techniques that are employed to meet these goals.

About the Author

My name is Lindsey Green. I am a board certified music therapist (MT-BC). I received my degree from Utah State University and completed my music therapy internship at Hartvigsen School in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2013. I love working with individuals with special needs and seeing the growth and development they achieve!

I have worked as a Behavior Interventionist for Alternative Behavior Strategies since February 2014. My job is to go into homes (usually for two to three hours at a time) and implement the ABA programming that has been created by Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). They have already conducted assessments and determined what programming is best suited to meet the needs of the individual child.

I am careful not to term what I do with music in ABA sessions “music therapy” because I did not create a music therapy treatment plan for them. However, as I implement the BCBA’s programming, I often incorporate music and music therapy techniques to enhance the sessions for the child.

How I use Music in ABA Sessions

Music is a powerful tool because it occurs in the moment, is often predictable, and stimulates numerous areas of the brain as it is being processed. Music experiences generally address various domains of development simultaneously. I will attempt to categorize them and focus on only a few. I use music in sessions to work on cognitive skills, social skills, and to maintain attention.

Cognitive Skills

This has especially proved helpful in teaching phone numbers or addresses. One of the kids I worked with had a program to learn his address. By putting it to a song, he was able to remember it within a day.   In this case, I just made up my own short song and sang it with him a few times. I included the discriminative stimulus that was written into his program in the song so that he would generalize better when I did move to a verbal cue (versus the sung cue).

See the resource section below for a website geared toward teaching academic curriculum concepts.

Social Skills

Instruments, such as the guitar or harmonica, are fun to bring in to the sessions occasionally. They provide a sense of novelty to the child that facilitates social interactions with me as the facilitator. Instruments can also provide sensory exploration. One of my younger clients likes to feel the strings of the guitar, either by strumming them or just running his fingers along them.   Sometimes I will put his feet on the body of the guitar so he can feel the vibrations through it. These are all ways of facilitating social interactions.   In another session, the child was playing by himself and not engaging with me. I started singing (improvising) about what he was doing as he played. He then started doing other things to see if I would also sing about those, thus creating a social interaction game.

Movement to music provides a great way for kids to have a break from more formal ABA work while still working on social awareness and listening skills. In my experience, the funnier the song, the more engagement you’ll get from the child.   If you have a group of children, turn-taking with instruments can also be incorporated.

Some movement songs require the child to use their imagination, while others involve following a leader that comes up with original motor movements (another opportunity for turn-taking). This requires the child to watch a peer and imitate them.

Most often, I incorporate movement songs in “mock circle time” with parents, siblings, and peers that might be visiting.   During this time, I am charting on goals such as hand raising to answer questions and sitting quietly/ attending to the teacher. In these mock circle times, I choose to incorporate a hello song, a story (with questions about the content), and then sing favorite songs while I play the guitar, take turns with instruments/ imitating peers, or do movement to music.

See the resources section below for some of my favorite movement songs.

Maintaining Attention

Elements of the music can be modified in the moment to elicit different responses from the child. Maybe they are tuning out temporarily. At that time, a music therapist might change an element of the music (volume, speed, style, key, etc.) in order to cue the child that there is something changing. The child might then “wake up” from his tuning out moment and reengage in the experience.

The skill of improvising musically/ vocally often comes in handy. When working one-on-one with a child, a music therapist would base the speed and style of the song upon what the child is doing at that time. For instance, if the child has a lot of energy, the tempo of the song might be faster; if the child is in more of a lounging mood, the speed might start slower.


I have been impressed by the progress that can be achieved as these children are involved with ABA therapy. The style of teaching and methods employed by the staff at Alternative Behavior Strategies can positively influence the child’s rate of learning. In my experience, music added to the structure of ABA programming enhances the learning experience for the child. I hope you will be able to incorporate some of the techniques mentioned in this article.


Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet from musictherapy.org

Songsforteaching.com– songs for teaching academic curriculum concepts

Movement Songs for Children – compiled by the director of Harmony Music Therapy in Salt Lake City; an excellent blog with ideas for using music

My favorite movement songs: “The Goldfish” – Laurie Berkner; “Animal Action” – Greg and Steve; “Pokey Bear,” ““The Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” (try combining the last verse with “sea, chop, knee” instead of adding the foot)