Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 41, Issue 11, pp 1507–1514 | Cite as

Music Interventions for Children with Autism: Narrative Review of the Literature

  • Kate Simpson
  • Deb Keen
Original Paper


It is widely reported that music can be beneficial to individuals with autism. This review was undertaken to determine the evidence base for the use of music as an intervention for children with autism. After searching relevant databases, 128 articles were identified of which 20 articles met the study’s inclusion criteria. Composed songs and improvisational music therapy were the predominant music techniques used. There was somewhat limited evidence to support the use of music interventions under certain conditions to facilitate social, communicative and behavioural skills in young children with autism. The implications of these findings in terms of use of music interventions, issues related to generalization and maintenance, and future research are discussed.


Autism Music Intervention Review 


  1. Accordino, R., Comer, R., & Heller, W. B. (2007). Searching for music’s potential: A critical examination of research on music therapy with individuals with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 1, 101–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alvin, J. (1978). Music therapy for the autistic child. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Alvin, J., & Warwick, A. (1992). Music therapy for the autistic child (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Applebaum, E., Egel, A. L., Koegel, R. L., & Imhoff, B. (1979). Measuring musical abilities of autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 279–285.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blackstock, E. G. (1978). Cerebral asymmetry and the development of early infantile autism. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 8, 339–353.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bonnel, A., Mottron, L., Peretz, I., Trudel, M., Gallum, E., & Bonnel, A. (2003). Enhanced pitch sensitivity in individuals with autism: A signal detection analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 206–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brownell, M. D. (2002). Musically adapted social stories to modify behaviours in students with autism: Four case studies. Journal of Music Therapy, 39, 117–144.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Buday, E. M. (1995). The effects of signed and spoken words taught with music on sign and speech imitation by children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 32, 189–202.Google Scholar
  9. Carnahan, C., Basham, J., & Musti-Rao, S. (2009a). A low-technology strategy for increasing engagement of students with autism and significant learning needs. Exceptionality, 17, 76–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carnahan, C., Musti-Rao, S., & Bailey, J. (2009b). Promoting active engagement in small group learning experiences for students with autism and significant learning needs. Education & Treatment of Children, 32, 37–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Corbett, B. A., Shickman, K., & Ferrer, E. (2008). Brief report: The effects of tomatis sound in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 562–566.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Devlin, S., Healy, O., Leader, G., & Reed, P. (2008). The analysis and treatment of problem behaviour evoked by auditory stimulation. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2, 671–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Edgerton, C. L. (1994). The effect of improvisational music therapy on the communicative behaviours of autistic children. Journal of Music Therapy, 31, 31–62.Google Scholar
  14. Gold, C., Wigram, T., & Elefant, C. (2006). Music therapy for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2). Art. No.: CD004381. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004381.pub2.
  15. Gray, C. (2000). The new social story book: Illustrated edition. Arlington: Future Horizons.Google Scholar
  16. Gunter, P., & Fox, J. (1993). A case study of the reduction of aberrant, repetitive responses of an adolescent with autism. Education and Treatment of Children, 16, 187–197.Google Scholar
  17. Heaton, P. (2005). Interval and contour processing in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 787–793.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Heaton, P., Hermelin, B., & Pring, L. (1998). Autism and pitch processing: A precursor for savant musical ability? Music Perception, 15, 291–305.Google Scholar
  19. Heaton, P., Hudry, K., Ludlow, A., & Hill, E. (2008). Superior discrimination of speech pitch and its relationship to verbal ability in autism spectrum disorders. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 25, 771–782.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Heaton, P., Williams, K., Cummins, O., & Happé, F. (2007). Beyond perception: Musical representational processing in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1355–1360.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Jones, C., Happé, F., Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Marsden, A., Tregay, J., et al. (2009). Auditory discrimination and auditory sensory behaviours in autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychologia, 47, 2850–2858.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kaplan, R. S., & Steele, A. L. (2005). An analysis of music therapy program goals and outcomes for clients with diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Journal of Music Therapy, 42, 2–19.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Katagiri, J. (2009). The effect of background music and song texts on the emotional understanding of children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 46, 15–31.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Kennedy, C. H. (2005). Single-case designs for educational research. Boston: Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  25. Kern, P., & Aldridge, D. (2006). Using embedded music therapy interventions to support outdoor play of young children with autism in an inclusive community-based child care program. Journal of Music Therapy, 43, 270–294.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Kern, P., Wolery, M., & Aldridge, D. (2007). Use of songs to promote independence in morning greeting routines for young children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1264–1271.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2008). The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviours in autistic children: A randomized controlled study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1758–1766.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13, 389–409.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kolko, D. J., Anderson, L., & Campbell, M. (1980). Sensory preference and overselective responding in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10, 259–271.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lanovaz, M., Fletcher, S., & Rapp, J. (2009). Identifying stimuli that alter immediate and subsequent levels of vocial stereotypy: A further analysis of functionally matched stimulation. Behaviour Modification, 33, 682–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lovaas, O. I., Koegel, R. L., Simmons, J. Q., & Long, J. (1973). Some generalization and follow-up measures on autistic children in behaviour therapy. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 6, 131–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Malloch, S., & Trevarthen, C. (2009). Musicality: Communicating the vitality and interests of life. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship (pp. 1–15). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Mottron, L., Peretz, L., & Menard, E. (2000). Local and global processing of music in high-functioning persons with autism: Beyond central coherence? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 1057–1065.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. National Autism Center. (2009). National standards project: Addressing the need for evidence-based practice guidelines for autism spectrum disorder. Findings and conclusions. Retrieved from
  35. National Research Council. (2001). Educating children with autism. Washington, DC.: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  36. Orr, T., Myles, B. S., & Carlson, J. K. (1998). The impact of rhythmic entrainment of a person with autism. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 13, 163–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pasiali, V. (2004). The use of prescriptive therapeutic songs in a home-based environment to promote social skills acquisition by children with autism: Three case studies. Music Therapy Perspectives, 20, 11–20.Google Scholar
  38. Rapp, J. (2007). Further evaluation of methods to identify matched stimulation. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 40, 73–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Simpson, K., & Keen, D. (2010). Teaching young children with autism graphic symbols embedded within an interactive song. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 20, 165–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Stephens, C. E. (2008). Spontaneous imitation by children with autism during a repetitive musical play routine. Autism, 12, 645–671.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Thaut, M. (1987). Visual versus auditory (musical) stimulus preferences in autistic children: A pilot study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17, 425–432.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Thaut, M. (1988). Measuring musical responsiveness in autistic children: A comparative analysis of improvised musical tone sequences of autistic, normal, and mentally retarded individuals. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18, 561–571.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Whipple, J. (2004). Music in intervention for children and adolescents with autism: A meta-analysis. Journal of Music Therapy, 41, 90–106.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Wimpory, D., Chadwick, P., & Nash, S. (1995). Brief report: Musical interaction therapy for children with autism: An evaluative case study with two-year follow-up. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, 25, 541–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationAustralian Catholic UniversityVirginiaAustralia

Personalised recommendations