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Selected extra-musical benefits of music education for children with autism spectrum disorder

In advocating for music education for children on the autism spectrum it is imperative that teachers recognize the ways in which learning through music helps these students. An overview of extra-musical benefits for music education is provided in three areas: 1. Social Interaction; 2. Sense of Self, and; 3. Psychomotor Facility.

1. Social Interaction

Music education provides students with avenues to interact with others without verbal communication. For example, through music children with autism spectrum disorder follow the leader’s directions by imitating movements that accompany songs: for example, children may engage with a song such as The farmer in the dell by clapping their hands or stomping their feet to the beat of the music. After students are familiar with the song, they may dramatize the story. As students continue to gain experience through music, they display social awareness of cooperative play by singing, dancing, and playing instruments with teachers, educational assistants, and peers. Through continued experiences they are increasingly motivated to interact with others.

2. Sense of Self

Most, if not all, people are capable of self-expression through music. While a child on the autism spectrum may not be able to explain these contributions of music to their quality of life verbally, caregivers may observe increasing self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-esteem in the child’s behaviors. For example, music is known to produce a calming effect on children with autism spectrum disorder (see Eren, Deniz, & Duzkantar, 2013). Over time educators may notice a decrease in stereotypical behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking as students increasingly engage with music.

Successful interactions in music may lead to the child’s growing willingness to control his behaviors in relation to others by listening to and following the leader’s directions. In this case, success leads to success. For example, after a period of struggle, a child with limited speaking ability sings his name. The others in the room cheer this success. The child smiles with pleasure to indicate an emergence of self-esteem as he realizes this success. This may lead to increased self-confidence as his accomplishments in music continue.

3. Psychomotor Facility

Varied experiences in music-based activities provide students with opportunities to develop and practice gross motor skills by moving in place (non-locomotor) and space (locomotor). In addition, while moving through space students provide motor responses to a leader’s directions such as to start or stop, to move quickly or slowly, or to move loudly (large movements) or quietly (small movements). Students engage in musical problem solving when they devise movements to accompany listening experiences. For example, students move like birds to accompany bird-like sounds that the teacher improvises with a piano, recorder, xylophone.

Many children on the autism spectrum experience difficulties with taken-for-granted competencies employed by peers in typical play environments. For example, playing tag or hide-and-seek requires that children are able to move freely through space; play activities, such as throwing a ball, requires that students can control objects through space. Musical games, such as passing a ball to a partner, provide students with opportunities to learn and practice skills that transfer to other contexts. Thus, proficiency in motor tasks increases both the frequency and quality of social interactions for children with autism spectrum disorder (Bhat, Landa, & Galloway, 2011).

Music provides avenues for students with autism spectrum disorder to interact with teachers and peers in spontaneous and creative play. Multiple relationships are established, including those with the music and the physical space within which these activities take place. Interpersonal communications occur among children with autism spectrum disorder, adult guides and other children in the room. Within this context, music education provides students with opportunities to learn and to practice psychomotor skills. Students gain an increased sense of self and of self esteem through these positive interactions with others.

Featured Image Credit: “Music, Hand, Playing Musical Instrument” by James Darlong. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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