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Music therapy and autism: What you need to know

“When you’re autistic, it’s really hard to do what everyone else does.”

By Rebel Wylie
When 22-year-old Kodi Lee took to the stage for his America's Got Talent audition in May, 2019, the world stood up and took notice.
A giggly Kodi, who is blind and has autism was led to the stage by his mum, Tina Lee where absolutely blew the roof off the auditorium with his flawless cover of Donny Hathaway's A Song For You.
Perhaps most heart-warming of all were the words Tina shared with the judges and audience before he performed when she told everyone: "Through music and performing he was able to withstand living in this world."
"We found out that he loved music really early on. He listened and his eyes just went huge, and he started singing, and that's when I was in tears … I just realised, oh my god, he's an entertainer," Tina explained to judges Simon Cowell, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Howie Mandel.
"It saved his life, playing music,"
While not enough research and quality study has been done on the benefits of music as therapy for those autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there is certainly an abundance of anecdotal evidence that would suggest that for some, music therapy aids in improving social and communication skills for those on the autism spectrum.
What is music therapy?
Music therapy is described by Music in Australia as "an allied health profession which is the planned and creative use of music to attain and maintain health and well-being, and may address physical, psychological, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals within a therapeutic relationship."
Music therapy offers people who have difficulty with communication an alternative way of communicating and interacting.
Rather than words, those practising music therapy can use a range of musical activities instead. Singing, playing instruments, improvising, song-writing and listening to music help to promote communication and social skills like making eye contact and taking turns.
For example, a child with ASD may be better able to focus on information that has been sung to them, rather than spoken. In that case a music therapist might write lyrics about specific information the child needs to understand. They would then put those written lyrics to a familiar tune to help the child focus on what is being said.
What is a music therapist?
Registered Music Therapists (RMT) must complete an accredited course of training at a university. They study all aspects of music performance, history and theory, in addition to psychology, physiology, social theory and models of therapeutic intervention.
"When you're autistic, it's really hard to do what everyone else does." America's Got Talent
Music in Australia says Music Therapy may be used for clients experiencing any combination of the following:
  • coping difficulties, withdrawal, isolation
  • depression
  • difficulties or frustration expressing or communicating thoughts, feelings, needs and desires
  • difficulties exploring spirituality and/or spiritual issues
  • complex pain problems (physical and/or emotional)
  • persistent unexplained nausea and/or vomiting
  • anxiety and fear; disorientation and/or confusion
  • insomnia
  • extreme physical tension
  • aphasia, dysphasia
  • cultural and/or language difficulties
  • difficulty with medical and nursing interventions
  • sensory/cognitive/communication impairment
If you're interested in seeking out music therapy, it is a good idea to first speak with your GP or one of the other healthcare workers who work with your family.
You can find a registered music therapist on the Australian Music Therapy Association website.

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