Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Avenues of musical interactions for students with autism spectrum disorder

Singing (vocalizing) 

Students on the autism spectrum have a natural ability to perceive pitch and to reproduce melodic patterns. These natural inclinations become building blocks to learning in music. Students experiment vocally by creating sounds in response to the leader’s directions. This may begin with activities in which they follow the conductor’s lead, producing sounds that are high and low. As well, groups of pitches may be produced to create ascending or descending tonal patterns. Through vocal imitation, students begin to greet others by singing hello. Over time, students may begin to sing complete songs or portions of songs with the clarity of the lyrics improving as they practice this skill.

Moving (psychomotor)

Students may engage fine muscle movements by interacting with a variety of stuffed toys that motivate their involvement with others through music and enhance their enjoyment of music-based activities. For example, a student who likes cats might stroke a stuffed [toy] cat’s fur while the teacher sings a song about cats such as Dean’s Pete the Cat: The wheels on the bus (2013). Many students on the autism spectrum are able to demonstrate the beat through movement activities with ease. These students may appear to automatically stroke the cat in imitation of the beat of the song. Teachers who model the beat may find that, with repeated experiences and practice, student may refine their fine muscle control to model the beat.

Varied experiences in music activities also provide students with opportunities to develop and practice gross motor skills by moving in place (non-locomotor) and space (locomotor). For example, a student stands in place while making a bird puppet fly by moving it higher and lower; the student moves through space using hand movements to create the bird’s flight path and crouching down to make the bird land on the ground. A teacher uses a kazoo to improvise ascending and descending melodic patterns in response to the student’s movements. Students engage in musical problem solving when they devise movements to accompany listening experiences such as the movement Hens and Roosters from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the animals.

Playing instruments

Students on the autism spectrum have opportunities to develop and practice fine motor movements and visual/motor awareness when playing instruments. Musical activities also provide avenues for tactile understanding when students discover what percussion instruments are made of, how they are held, and how they are played. Through experiences in music students gain an awareness of sound. As they become familiar with the variety of sounds emanating from their music classrooms, they become better-able to tolerate a variety of sound frequencies such as the high metal sounds of a triangle or the relatively low sounds of a drum. They also learn how instruments comprised of different materials produce varying timbres. This provides students with an increased awareness of sound and greater understanding of sound sources. These experiences may help students tolerate the sounds they encounter within their everyday environments.


Children on the autism spectrum interact with music by singing or vocalizing, moving, and playing instruments. Singing may begin with vocal experimentations with melodic patterns and proceed to singing select words, parts of songs, and complete songs. Moving to music may begin with hand motions that reflect the beat, to activities that promote locomotion. Playing musical instruments provides students opportunities to explore tactile understanding and to increase their awareness of sounds and sound sources. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder all demonstrate their understanding in unique ways. Educators are encouraged to use the ideas shared here as a starting point for interactions, using the children’s reactions to guide moment-to-moment decisions in their classrooms.

Featured image credit: Piano Music by allegralchaple0. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.