Victoria Doxat explores the wide-ranging benefits of playing musical instruments for children with autism and SPD
We all know that listening to and playing music makes us feel better, and it is widely recognised that music can have a profound positive impact for those living with disabilities and poor mental or physical health. Music is a medium that is accessible to everyone regardless of age, gender, disability or physical impairment and music therapy has long been recognised as providing opportunities for even very severely disabled individuals to participate, engage, enjoy and achieve.
Why music matters for autism
Autistic children often have great difficulty interacting with others but playing musical instruments can help a child to overcome these challenges. When a musical instrument is introduced into an autistic child’s environment there is an opportunity for the child to connect with the instrument in a non-threatening, non-pressurised way. Some musical instruments have even been specifically designed to enable two players to play at the same time without making eye contact and without encroaching on each other’s personal spaces. This gentle introduction to companionship and familiarity with others in an informal and fun way leads to increased socialisation and improved communication skills in the long term.
In non-verbal children, music therapy and playing musical instruments allows communication without language and fosters creative self-expression. This in turn leads to the development of verbal communication and improved language skills. Indeed, research conducted by Professor Hayoung Lim in 2010 found that music training is as effective as speech training for improving the vocabulary and speech production of children with autism. This is because music both stimulates and physically develops the language processing areas of the brain. This means that even short-term engagement with musical instruments has a significant impact on the neurological areas associated with understanding speech and sounds.
In addition, playing musical instruments helps the child with autism to learn how to relate to others. Engaging with musical instruments assists the child to participate in socially acceptable ways and helps to reinforce desired responses. Playing musical instruments also teaches important life skills such as turn-taking and working as part of a team.
When musical instruments are placed within an outside space, the child is also able to move freely, to dance and to explore rhythm with their whole bodies in an unrestricted way, in addition to enjoying the many benefits of being outside in the fresh air. All this can help to motivate the child to follow more impulsive play patterns that will engage the whole of their brain and body. Impulsiveness and spontaneity are often missing from the lives of autistic children and so playing musical instruments supports a child to become a more well rounded individual.
Why music can help with SPD
Common symptoms of sensory processing disorders (SPD) include over-sensitivity to things within the environment and even everyday sensations may be painful or overwhelming for a child with SPD. Some children exhibit a lack of coordination, a lack of spatial awareness or they may find it difficult to engage in conversation or interact with others socially. Although SPDs are usually identified in childhood, they tend to be lifelong problems and so also affect adults.
Playing musical instruments combines sound with movement in an interactive way and supports the establishment of positive responses to stimuli. This is because children with sensory processing disorders often display “fight or flight” reflexes to unexpected sensations. Many observers have found that with musical instruments these fight or flight reactions are very rarely seen and children are generally calmer because the sensations are pleasant and anticipated. Because their whole body is engaged in making music, the child is able to access the music holistically which reduces fear and anxiety. In recognition of this, music therapy is now becoming an increasingly common form of intervention for those living with SPD.
The sooner the better
There is widespread belief that if autism is diagnosed early in childhood, interventions that can be put in place are more effective in the long term for that individual and their families. This is because early interventions, such as those offered through music therapy, can positively impact many areas of a child’s life including communication skills and academic ability.
A study from 2015 by Vaiouli, which appeared in the journal Autism, found that when very young children with autism were given the opportunity to access music within their kindergarten setting, all of the children showed improvement in their attention and social engagement.
Making music together
Playing musical instruments provides a way for families to have fun together whilst strengthening the bonds of communication between parents, grandparents, siblings and the autistic child. Music therapy is especially suited to families because everyone, regardless of age or musical ability, can play instruments and have fun whilst doing so. For the autistic child, the pressure and expectations are lifted and new ways can be found for the child to respond to their family meaningfully. For those with SPD, the sounds made are anticipated and pleasant and so support desensitisation. There are no boundaries with music and no rules which means that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to access the instruments. For these reasons each family can use music and musical instruments in a way that suits their individual needs and preferences.
Music is a universal language and is very well suited to the needs of autistic children because music captures and maintains their attention in a way that other mediums do not. Playing musical instruments also assists the child to participate in socially acceptable ways and helps to reinforce desired responses.
A 2001 study by Clift and Hancox found that music is hugely beneficial for our psychological wellbeing and reduces stress at the same time as boosting the immune system. Studies like these all suggest that the benefits of playing musical instruments for children living with stressful conditions such as autism and SPD cannot be underestimated. There is a growing body of compelling research which proves that music encourages, and often initiates, language development, communication, socialisation, self-confidence and spatial reasoning and it would appear that one of the very best things that we can do for our children, regardless of their ability, is to encourage them to play musical instruments.
Victoria Doxat is a writer and lecturer with a keen interest in music therapy. She has been collaborating with Percussion Play, a manufacturer of outdoor musical instruments, to research into the benefits of music for children with SEN. The findings of her research can be accessed on the company’s website: