*Always Unique Totally Interesting Sometimes Mysterious*

     These six words could represent and explain a myriad of possibilities.  They could express a style of music or even how you might describe your rest and relaxation in the warm summer months. The truth is that these words were organized together to help describe individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  If you personally know someone, or have worked with anyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), then you might agree that these words are powerfully accurate.  Although Autism Awareness Month occurs in April, MedRhythms would love to take the time to discuss how Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) can benefit a loved one or individual with autism.

     According to the Autism Society, Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a “complex developmental disability” or disorder of brain development.  Symptoms and signs of ASD can be evident during early childhood.  This condition affects communication (verbally and/or non-verbally) and interaction with others.  ASD falls on a spectrum because symptoms are categorized by varying degrees based on difficulties in social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and communication.  Individuals with ASD may have difficulties in motor coordination and attention.  Some other behaviors typically associated with ASD are delay of language, visual and hearing problems, difficultly making and sustaining eye contact, and difficulty in planning and reasoning.  Often times an individual with ASD may also have specific sensory needs.  There is no known single cause of autism.  Early diagnosis, early intervention, and access to services are important for helping an individual achieve improvement in selected areas.  

     The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that about 1 percent of the world population has ASD.  The prevalence in the US is estimated to be 1 in every 68 births. According to that statistic, more than 3.5 million Americans are living with ASD.   It is important to note that many ASD persons are extremely gifted and excel in areas such as music, math, and art.  In fact, many children diagnosed with ASD appear to have an incredible attraction to music. According to Autism Speaks, about 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities.  

     But how can NMT provide treatment and care to those with ASD? First and foremost, music affects a brain with autism as it affects every brain.  When a human brain engages in music, the whole brain is activated.  Because of this, music has the capability to rewire and retrain pathways that are damaged or weak.  NMT harnesses the powerful effect music has on our brains and incorporates clinically standardized techniques that utilize the science behind music to help change, strengthen, and optimize brain function.  Mostly all NMT techniques can address the specific needs and goals for each unique person with ASD.  These include, but are not limited to:

  • Developmental Speech and Language Training through Music (DSLM)

  • Auditory Perception Training (APT)

  • Music in Psychosocial Training and Counseling (MPC)

  • Musical Attention Control Training (MACT)

  • Musical Echoic Memory Training (MEM)

  • Oral Motor and Respiratory Exercises (OMREX)

  • Therapeutic Singing (TS)   

     For example, let’s take singing.  Singing can be a common link that may be found in many NMT interventions.  Plenty of us love to sing, even those that won’t admit it, but there’s definitely a lot more to singing than we think.  Singing is one aspect of music that can actually transform an individual’s communication skills and increase respiratory function.  Research has shown that singing can create a strong foundation to help develop speech and language skills for children with ASD (Thaut, 2014).  The relationship between language and music can be explained because music and language share similar areas of brain activation.  Imagine a road block between where you are and your destination.  If your destination happens to be Language Land, then you can just turn right and travel down Music Highway to get there! Music acts as the detour in the road, making new pathways to improve impaired language.  

     Utilizing music in communication for persons with ASD yield improved results (Thaut, 2014).  A study by Lai et al. (2012) demonstrated that the areas in the brain for speech and auditory processing had a greater response to music stimuli than actual speech stimuli in ASD children.  A study by Lim (2010) focused on the benefits of using music training versus recorded speech to improve verbal production.  Results from this study described a promising benefit. Children with ASD that are considered to have lower functioning, showed more improvements for verbal production with music incorporated into their training.  Persons with ASD can also have challenges that include regulating arousal.  NMT interventions like MPC can help persons with ASD by using musical performance to address mood control, self-awareness, facial expression, cognition, social interaction, and reality orientation (Thaut, 2014).

     It doesn’t just stop there.  Music also can address and help retrain motor dysfunction for those with ASD.  Using rhythm as a stimulus in therapeutic interventions can improve performance in movements that are impaired.  The process in which the brain interprets and understands rhythm can help to improve areas including activities of daily living.  Rhythm influences the brain’s internal time-keeping clock and brains can be trained, through rhythmic interventions, to facilitate more fluid and natural movement (see our blog on entrainment for more info on that!). Furthermore, music provides us with an emotional engagement and enjoyment to build relationships.  Music can help us to connect with one another and to create relationships. Because music engages our entire brain (motor, language, emotions, and cognition), the clinical possibilities and opportunities for those with ASD are endless.

     Let’s try and bring back that inspiring quote by NMT pioneer Michael Thaut, “a brain that engages in music, is changed by being engaged in music”. No matter how diverse a brain may be, music has profound effects to engage and change function.  Individuals with ASD are just that: neurologically diverse.  Music is an effective and efficient clinical therapy to help this always unique, totally interesting, sometimes mysterious population, through Neurologic Music Therapy interventions. #MusicItsScience #NMT

By: Steph Mathioudakis, MedRhythms Blogger


Lai, G., Pantazatos, S.P., Schneider, H., and Hirsh, J. (2012). Neural systems for speech and song

     in autism. Brain, 135, 961-75.

Lim, H.A. (2010). Effect of “developmental speech and language training through music” on

     speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Music

     Therapy, 47, 2-26.

Thaut, M.H., & Hoemberg, V. (2014). Handbook of neurologic music therapy. Oxford, UK:

     Oxford Press.