We reviewed the evidence about the effect of music therapy in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We compared music therapy or music therapy in addition to standard care to no therapy, similar treatment without music ('placebo' therapy), or standard care.
People with ASD have difficulties with social interaction and communication. Music therapy uses musical experiences and the relationships that develop through them to enable people to relate to others, to communicate, and to share their feelings. In this way, music therapy addresses some of the core problems of people with ASD. We wanted to discover whether music therapy helps people with ASD compared to other alternatives.
We included 10 studies with a total number of 165 participants. The studies examined the short- and medium-term effect of music therapy interventions (one week to seven months) for children with ASD.
Music therapy was superior to 'placebo' therapy or standard care with respect to social interaction, non-verbal and verbal communicative skills, initiating behaviour, and social-emotional reciprocity. Music therapy was also superior to 'placebo' therapy or standard care in the areas of social adaptation, joy, and the quality of parent-child relationships. None of the included studies reported any side effects caused by music therapy.
Quality of the Evidence
The quality of the evidence was moderate for social interaction outside of the therapy context, initiating behaviour, social adaptation, and the quality of the parent-child relationship, and low for the other three main outcomes (nonverbal communicative skills outside of the therapy context, verbal communicative skills outside of the therapy context, and social-emotional reciprocity). Reasons for limited quality of the evidence were issues with study design and small number of patients who participated in the studies.
Music therapy may help children with ASD to improve their skills in important areas such as social interaction and communication. Music therapy may also contribute to increasing social adaptation skills in children with ASD and to promoting the quality of parent-child relationships. Some of the included studies featured interventions that correspond well with treatment in clinical practice. More research with adequate design and using larger numbers of patients is needed. It is important to specifically examine how long the effects of music therapy last. The application of music therapy requires specialised academic and clinical training. This is important when applying the results of this review to practice.