Autism and Music Therapy – An Introduction

©2012-2013 *TheFreeWay

In my interactions with service users, teachers, parents, carers and people involved with autism I am often asked about music therapy. Specifically by people who are not musicians, or those who consider themselves ‘not musical’ (we will not deal  with that here but needless to say I do not believe that there is such a thing as a non musical human being).  They want to know:

Why use it, what does it do, is there a specific kind, and how do you do it… and such. Over the years I have found what I feel is a good metaphor for introducing the benefits of engaging in music making, specifically in a therapeutic context, and I thought I would share it with you  here.


It’s all about communicating, but not words, bytes or data.  Communicating, in a very raw form,  by sharing time constructively with others.

Let’s think of a musical exchange as conversation.  What follows contains many  sweeping generalisations for illustration’s sake, but bear with me on this. Now if you imagine two men (specifically, let’s call them Jim and Bob) at a bar. They are old friends and spend the evening talking about the football game.  After ‘shooting the breeze’ they go their separate ways.

On returning home their wives (or respective partners) ask, ‘So how are they?’, ‘Good’, ‘Any news’, ‘Not really’, ‘What did you talk about’ , ‘We just chatted about the game’.

Now this doesn’t mean they did not really communicate. They  have spent time in each others company without exchanging any specific information about their current state of mind or situation but they can both get a feel for how the other one is.  They coordinated their activity around  each other in a way that appreciates the activity of the other, and in the safe, mutually shared context of the sporting event.

There are many more facets to music therapy, and a therapist can access fine grain detail, emotion and more, but as a metaphor for thinking about the general starting point for a musical conversation, a dialogue, an interaction. I feel this communcates it, without saying too much.

In terms of  autism you can think of music making or a musical dialogue, as providing a playground or ‘soft play’ area for communication. The shared ‘context’  is an important element.  The barflies need the ‘game’ to scaffold their interaction. Music can provide that. A safe place to explore intentions, skills, emotions and styles.  There doesn’t need to be any specific melody as such but it is the dynamics of the exchange that are the key.

There are many ways a musician or therapist can engage someone musically, providing them with or helping them find their ‘voice’.  Technologies such as Skoog, can play a significant role in this.

One last thing. Whilst on the subject of musicality, language, metaphor, and all that.  I’ll leave you with this. There is always a place for the expert to lecture the less well informed (this can lead to those being ‘lectured’ falling asleep), but in my opinion, the best conversations happen when there is an equality between participants, a level playing field if you will, finding the common ground or angle on a subject that makes it possible for everyone to contribute…