Music Therapy and Autism: Does it Work? Yes! Here’s Why (and How)

by Patty Shukla 

In my more than 20 years as a children’s educational music professional, I have found that one question gets asked over and over again.

“Miss Patty, do autistic children love music as much as your other students do?”


The fact is that nearly all children have an inherent love of learning about and making music. From singing to dancing to playing musical instruments, kids of every description and from every walk of life just naturally seem to gravitate toward music.

But who really seems to get a giant educational benefit out of music? The very beautiful, very special set of promising minds that make up today’s growing autistm community.

I started out helping children make music and found at one point that among my best responders to educational music programs were my absolutely wonderful students with autism.

And once I discovered that, I realized a whole new world could be in store for them – and for all the lives that touch theirs, every day.

More Than Music: Real Therapy, Real Results

What I discovered was that it wasn’t just by pure chance that my very unique students with autism were excelling in a number of key areas of their lives once music was introduced in a systematic, yet fun and engaging way.

In fact, there’s firm science behind making music and neuro organization, attention skills, full-body relaxation and more. And the possibilities are nothing short of amazing.

Today I’d like to share with you what music therapy is, how my students respond, and why music can engage and grow the minds of these beautiful students – now and for a lifetime.

Miss Patty’s Q & A: When is a Kid with Autism Not a Kid with Autism?

It’s not a trick question…well, not exactly. But there IS a point.

Q: When is a kid with autism not a kid with autism?

A: When she’s making music. Then she’s just a kid!

And it’s true. When they’re engaged in learning and making music, children on the spectrum are all but indistinguishable from any other group. We all laugh, dance, clap, sing and enjoy together. Nobody “stands out,” and nobody’s left out – we are all just one big, happy group engaging in something truly wonderful.

When my wonderful special needs participants are immersed in a great music program, they’re laughing. They’re playing. They’re engaging. Their bodies and minds organize in a very unique set of ways that allow them to show who they truly are, and to shine.

Why is this? And how can music help autistic people self-regulate and live up to their full potential?

I’m glad you asked! It’s a question I asked myself when I began this journey of reaching out to this unique group of music students. I think the answers may surprise you.

Evidence-Based Support for Interactive Music Programs

I don’t always like to get technical. For me, it’s all about the kids, their enjoyment, and a whole, integrated music experience that can help them dream and achieve.

But there’s no doubt: music can and does help some students, including individuals with autism, to reach greater heights in a number of life and educational areas.

While there are no guarantees, research into this area is blossoming on the heels of encouraging findings.

Music of all kinds has long been used for a variety of mental and physical health situations. Now new research from the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) supports that fun, engaging yet focused music can benefit youngsters in these key areas:

  • Increased attention
  • Decreased self-stimulation (stim behavior)
  • Improved overall cognitive functioning
  • Improved/increased social/peer interaction
  • Enhanced auditory processing (of particular benefit for children diagnosed with APD)
  • Better, more positive end-goal overall behavior
  • Enhanced sensory-motor skills and integration
  • Improved and increased speech

How Can One Therapy Do All These Amazing Things?

It can’t. As of the writing of this article and per the extensive research I have done into this area, no one single element or therapy has been proven to help ALL children on the spectrum to better understand and enjoy their world.

But a great music program can help with the above key areas when consistently applied under professional conditions by someone who knows (and for best results, absolutely loves!) kids with autism.

Kids engaged in a music program made just for them show degrees of progress in different areas. Like any other population, children with autism vary widely in personality, behaviors and abilities.

But interactive music is looking more and more hopeful for a wide number of special needs children, potentially opening up whole new worlds and an enjoyable new avenue for reaching and teaching.

My Experience with Music and Special Needs Children

At the beginning of this article I mentioned one of the most common questions I get from parents and professionals alike.

The second runner-up for that honor is, “So in practical terms, what results have you had for children into your classes?”
The answer is: amazing ones! I am encouraged every single day to see real science backed by real-time experience of my fun-loving, talented students. Here are some of the gross motor skills songs I use in my classes daily: Patty Shukla Action Song Playlist:

Kids learn not only to engage but to move their bodies fluidly, but also learn social rules and academic basics such as reading, counting and colors, and show greater interest in their peers as they sing and dance as a group.

I admit it. I absolutely love when the kids come up and give me a hug after a session, or when parents email me to tell me their children are improving day by day, speaking more, being happy, and of course, singing. You know – just being kids! That’s the biggest reward of all.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, though, is when I hear from other professionals, including educators, occupational and speech therapists, that by integrating some of my music-based programs, students have shown better attention, better sensory integration, and more social enthusiasm.

This shows what OTs and teachers have been telling me for years: music and motion can be invaluable in helping special needs kids to be a part of the larger world around them.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health now recommends that a decades-long tradition of music in OT be incorporated officially to make the most of a special needs child’s overall learning experience.

As I watch children respond to the hand and body cues, melody and words, I am inspired to learn more about this wonderful group of participants. I’m honored to be a part of their development into the children and adults they will one day become, with a future that’s brighter than ever.

Now that’s something to sing about!


Patty Shukla is an internationally recognized expert in educational-interactive music for children. She is watched by hundreds of millions of educators and families worldwide through her popular YouTube channel She has developed her own music show called “Musical PE For You & Me” that is based on interactive development skills for early childhood curriculum. When Patty is not performing or writing new music she is often a keynote speaker for educational workshops nationwide. She is a proud parent to three children and is inspired by them daily.  Http://