How can music help students with autism?

How can music help students with autism?

From my work in primary schools, I found that although teachers were generally very happy teaching music to students with autism, they found it daunting as it brought up a lot of unknowns for them. For example, students who struggled with noise levels, or students who struggled to join in with social activities. But I found that if we work with the whole class to build an inclusive music classroom, there are some easy steps that we can take to give everyone an inspiring and engaging music lesson. Music can be a meaningful area of growth for students with an autism diagnosis. Songs and other activities can help develop speech and vocal imitation skills, increase attention span, and provide a valuable means of self-expression. Working within groups and ensembles to perform songs, dances, and instrumental music can help children develop more social behaviour, thereby improving interpersonal and social relationships.

The Social Communication Stages, and how music helps each one

Shared Attention 

Many people with autism have difficulty with shared attention, which is the ability to share a focus on an object with another person. We can start to help through music and action songs which include all students sharing a focus on a certain goal, such as Row, Row your boat or twinkle twinkle little star. 

Focus on faces / Eye Contact 

The act of making eye contact is extremely stressful for some people affected by autism. There are many books and articles written by adults with autism who describe the terrible stress they felt when well-meaning parents and teachers tried to force them to make eye contact during conversations. In many cases, they describe being further distracted and unable to focus on the conversation because of this insistence.

We’ve also learned from these individuals that – when others give them leeway to communicate in a more comfortable manner (without eye contact) – they can engage in conversations and participate in school, work, and social interactions just fine.

While we don’t under any circumstances want to force an individual into making eye contact, we can help make them feel more involved and comfortable using Call and response songs like heads and shoulders where they have to focus on someones face to help with the music.

Initiation of joint attention

After a child has started to develop their shared attention skills, we can use music to play with the idea of letting them initiate this shared attention. Songs that include Improvisation, leaving space for the child to initiate each call and response pattern can help them feel more comfortable. Provide repetition for them and build a repertoire of activities so that the child has opportunities to initiate and request attention. Overall, music gives us uniques opportunities for social interaction for children with autism in a non pressured and fun environment.

Music Therapy

It can be very helpful for those with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. Music can both stimulate and relax a person leading to very positive changes in your students.

Music therapy with children can : 

  • help a child to listen

  • encourage spontaneous play

  • stir a desire to communicate

  • strengthen muscles and improve coordination.

  • help the child to build relationships

  • improve concentration

  • provide a means of self-expression

  • stimulate language development through songs and turn-taking

  • excite imagination and creativity

The underlying aim is to foster the child’s motivation to interact and relate to others, rather than being dependent on a reward. Music used as a tool for engagement provides unique opportunities for children to interact non-verbally through the global language of music.

Music To Relax to

Beautiful music has also been shown to help induce feelings of pleasure and calm. I recommend playing classical music in the room if a child with autism is getting anxious or agitated. The change in brain chemistry happening in the brain as the music is played is incompatible with stress and the child will feel calmer and happier, and so will the entire class. There are loads of songs to try, but the following playlist has a bit of everything, classical and non-classical so I recommend starting here and seeing what works for each individual.

Music Interventions

Music interventions may seem like a strange concept, but they can really work. Instead of using class intervention techniques with a child on the spectrum, why not try playing them some music in their safe space instead? Music interventions can improve social skills and behaviour in school-age children with ASD.

Working with students with ASD can be challenging; learning about their special needs will help us to treat them with understanding and respect. When we include them successfully in our music classes, we give them a chance to grow musically, and hopefully, to gain valuable life skills that will help prepare them for a rewarding life.

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