Children with ASD in the Music Classroom: How do I get their attention?

As a music educator and therapist, it is always nice to read a music education article that quotes or references music therapy.  Such is the case with Mary Crum Scholtens’ “Using Music to Encourage Joint Attention for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Attention as a Reciprocal Relationship” published in the June 2019 Music Education Journal.  She shared some practical ways as well as references and suggestions to educators who are working with students on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  

While her focus appears to be devoted to those students with “more profoundly affected end of the autism spectrum” (p. 45), some of her observations and suggestions are in my opinion applicable to any student with this specific diagnosis.  She defines that while there are two levels of engagement, she is practical in what is attainable in the classroom. Her opening statement helps educators who may be new or inexperienced in working with individuals with ASD, understand that just because a student “do[es] not seem to be responsive to the music and activities presented in music classroom, music provides a medium that can encourage these students to engage” (p. 46).

Ms. Scholtens defines joint attention quoting researchers Mundy and Acra who state that, “’Joint attention is the process of engaging another person’s attention to share in the experience of observing an object or event’” (p. 46).  She goes on to further explain that music therapist Amy Kalas identified more than one level of joint attention. Getting a child with ASD to engage in playing an instrument and/or singing is one level, but then for them to seek out engagement with someone is another level entirely.  As stated above, this article focuses on what is practical in the music classroom, so Scholtens emphasizes that educators may want to concentrate on the former, since the later “may be an unrealistic focus for the classroom” (p. 46). 

Knowing that music educators do not always have the benefits of specialized training for students with ASD, it is nice to know that there are educators who are seeking answers and doing their research.  Not all music educators have a music therapist working in their district that can provide consultation or assistance with these students, however, that is a role that a therapist can fulfill in a school district who strive to serve their students with evidenced based practice.

For more information on music therapy, visit our website at or the American Music Therapy Association’s website at

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC

Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow

Central Ohio Music Therapy, LLC

Scholtens, M.C. (2019).  Using music to encourage joint attention for students with autism spectrum disorder: Attention as a reciprocal relationship.  Music Educators Journal, June 2019. DOI: 10.1177/0027432119846954