Music, like the desire to attend Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, is powerful. It can pump us up before a stressful event, it can help us mourn break-ups, and it can unite communities when the chips are down. 

Whether you’re a chronic Spotify listener or one of those weirdos who swears by Apple Music, music can have a lasting effect on any individual. 

But in the last couple of decades, researchers have discovered something that goes beyond music’s general benefits: music therapy can profoundly impact students on the autism spectrum. 

While research around music therapy for individuals with autism is somewhat limited, the findings are largely positive. Importantly, we should be putting more resources into this research, considering the prevalence of the disability. 

This may come as a surprise, but…

  • Around 1 in 44 children are on the autism spectrum, according to the CDC
  • 31% of children with autism have an intellectual disability; 25% are in the borderline range; and 44% have average or above average IQ scores. 
  • Around 40% of people with autism cannot speak, according to Autism Speaks

Furthermore, autism is actually the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world. 

How can having autism affect learning?

Autism presents challenges for students in areas such as communication, socialization, focusing, imagination/creative play, and sensory processing. Needless to say, the challenges can impact how well students learn and engage with others in the classroom.

Some of the ways in which these difficulties may surface include:

  • Paying attention to the teacher/lesson
  • Socializing with peers 
  • Maintaining organization in their schoolwork 

This is where music therapy comes in.

What is music therapy?

Similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy, music therapy is just another type of treatment. 

For people with autism, researchers have found that music therapy can significantly improve certain areas such as communication and socialization. 

Music therapy’s origins

Although research regarding its effectiveness and use is somewhat limited, we began utilizing music therapy a while ago, during troubled times—in the aftermath of World Wars I and II

During the American Civil War, musicians began performing for injured soldiers—a tradition which continued through World Wars I and II. Musicians utilized their skills to inspire, entertain, and boost morale among soldiers. But it went deeper than this. By the end of World War II, musicians were performing to help soldiers cope with war-related trauma. 

When it was apparent that this tool actually did promote healing, more people started pushing for professionals to utilize music in medical settings.

What does music therapy entail?

A music therapy session will vary based on the individual’s goals, personality, and interests. But typically, you can expect a session to involve one or many of the following:

  • Creating music
  • Writing songs
  • Singing
  • Dancing
  • Listening to music
  • Analyzing/discussing music 

The connection between autism and music

Typically, students who are on the autism spectrum tend to be particularly interested in music—compared to the average student. To aid children with autism in interacting with others and expressing themselves, music can be an incredibly powerful tool.  

In a study at the University of London, researchers explored whether children with autism may typically be more musically talented than children without autism. The researchers compared musical skills among individuals with and without autism. They found that the children with autism performed significantly better than those in the control group. 

Students with autism can often better express themselves through musical mediums. The non-verbal channel of communication that comes with music can really benefit these students. 

One major reason for this is that students with autism tend to experience lots of stimulation during a verbal/social interaction. Meanwhile, neurotypical students (those not on the autism spectrum), can more easily focus on the person who is speaking and block out other forms of stimulation around them. 

Why does music help students with autism?

Although our understanding of autism has evolved over the past few decades, there is some consensus that people with autism are generally less well-functioning in their ability to:

  • Attribute emotions to others
  • Imagine emotions when not having them 
  • Describe emotions in language 

Essentially, this often results in struggles with communication. 

Music therapy promotes improved communication amongst students with autism. Music gives these students the chance to communicate without words—and instead through musical expression. Often, after expressing themselves musically, these students can more successfully express themselves verbally. 

On top of that, musical activities can also boost other social skills such as making eye contact and taking turns.

Benefits of music therapy for students with autism 

To understand why music therapy can be so valuable for students with autism, we need to dive a little into the neuroscience involved in music’s effects on the brain.

Calming properties

Many students with autism find it challenging to manage their emotions—let alone reach relaxation. Research demonstrates that music can promote muscle relaxation, allowing for tension release. And with muscle relaxation comes mind relaxation. 

To provide some clarity for how this works, let’s think about cortisol, a hormone related to stress and anxiety. Research has shown that listening to music can decrease cortisol throughout the body. For instance, one study found that patients who listened to music during surgery had lower levels of cortisol than patients who didn’t listen to music. 

On top of this, a 2020 Health Psychology review found that listening to music can also lower heart rate, release endorphins, and distract us (and in turn reduce stress levels). 

Students with autism tend to experience more (and often, more intense) anxiety than neurotypical students, so music, with its ability to reduce stress, is a critical tool. 

Social skills & communication 

As mentioned earlier, students with autism tend to have difficulties relating to and communicating their feelings with others. 

Research demonstrates that music can help improve autistic students’ communication and socialization skills. 

To understand why this happens, first you need to know about something called connectivity. Connectivity refers to the relations or connections between certain brain regions. Research has found that individuals with autism tend to have different structures of connectivity than neurotypical people. And this difference in connectivity contributes to some of the challenges people with autism face. 

Significantly, researchers have also proposed that listening to music can result in changes to their connectivity. 

Recent data on music therapy and students with autism

A recent study on the effect of music interventions on the brain showed just this. Here’s what happened:

Megha Sharda and colleagues assigned children on the autism spectrum to two groups. One group participated in the music intervention, and one served as a control group. The researchers analyzed measures such as family quality of life and parental care. Notably, they also used rsfMRI (where the “rs” stands for “resting state”) to measure brain activity while the children rested. 

As mentioned above, research has suggested that individuals with autism may have different brain connections than neurotypical individuals—and that listening to music can alter those connections. 

The results

The researchers found significant behavioral improvements for those in the music intervention. But more importantly, they found that the brain actually did change in response to music. They discovered that for those in the music intervention, there were increased connections between auditory and motor regions—and decreased connections between auditory and visual regions. 

Researchers have suggested that those with autism may specifically have overconnectivity between auditory and visual regions (which leads to sensory overload). This can lead to challenges in social situations, since these individuals have so much stimulation coming at them. 

So it makes sense that when this overconnectivity decreases, those individuals have improved behavior. 

And according to Megha Sharda, lead author of the research, the increase in connectivity between auditory and motor regions is valuable and necessary for social interactions. Having that optimal connectivity allows you to pay attention to what someone is saying, then prepare what you’re going to say. For students with autism, that can be difficult. 

Breaking down the science 

The scientific jargon can definitely be confusing, so let’s dissect it a little. 

  • As research shows, students with autism often have overconnectivity in their brain (AKA too much stimulation), which reduces their ability to manage and understand their emotions and behaviors.   
  • Listening to music can result in a decrease in this stimulation among students with autism through increasing certain areas of connectivity, while decreasing others. And this results in behavior improvements. 

Here’s some more brain-related information:

Students with autism often have enlarged hippocampuses—and this tends to correlate with random brain activity that obstructs learning, focus, and memory. The brain on music

Music helps control these symptoms. As a result, students with autism can more effectively engage with their learning materials. 

Listening to music activates both hemispheres of the brain

There’s something else about music that’s pretty cool. Daniel Levitiin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music,” explains that listening to music actually activates both brain hemispheres, unlike most other forms of stimulation.

Listening to music activates neurons in the brain region called the corpus callosum (which connects the two brain hemispheres); the result is a surge of activity that allows for:

  • Greater storage of information
  • Improved creative imagery
  • Endorphin release  

All of the above contribute to the positive effects of listening to music—such as improved communication, social-emotional skills, and wellbeing.In addition to being a great companion, music plays a valuable role in education. Evidently, music therapy isn’t just a bogus theory (like the Mozart Effect), but a real treatment for students with autism.