Seeing is believing - research shows the benefits of music therapy

Ten 10 children with autism and 10 music therapists made music for a year – with convincing results. 

Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer in music therapy Dr Daphne Rickson is conducting research to find out what benefits music therapy can provide for children with autism. The music therapists provided case studies from their sessions with the children to evaluators who were experts in autism and to a team of family and others who knew the children. Both teams assessed the effects of the therapy based on the case studies and their observations.

Daphne is now in the final stages of analysing the results and she is confident that the belief people have that music therapy benefits these children is backed by the evidence. 

“Children with autism generally are very musical and they have an interest in music and they sometimes have high-level skills,” Daphne says. “That was true for the 10 to varying degrees, but in every case the evaluators mentioned the children’s musicality, for example, their ability to beat in time and sing in tune.” 

Daphne says this major two-year research project, funded by the IHC Foundation, follows a smaller exploratory research project, in which one of the themes had been ‘seeing is believing’. 

“So that is why we went to this case study thing, because so many people said, ‘If you see music therapy, if you see it in action, if you hear the stories, you absolutely believe it’. It’s a strange situation to be in. Everybody believes in it and yet it’s really hard to pin it down.” 

Daphne says children with autism can find it hard to manage when they become stressed, frustrated and anxious because sensory regulation is difficult for them. “They can have high or low sensitivity to sound, high or low sensitivity to touch, and so on.” 

She says music therapy seems to help in sensory regulation, and from that starting point can also help with cognitive and emotional regulation. 

Daphne is planning to have her analysis completed by the end of the year and to write up her research after that.

Hear the Radio NZ interview with Daphne on the Upbeat programme.