Music Therapy: A Family-Centered Approach to Autism

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Music therapy is often thought of as taking place at a facility—in a patient’s room at a hospital, in a common room at a day facility, in an office, in a school, etc. The session is client-focused and centers around the client’s or clients’ needs. What may be less known is that music therapy often occurs in clients’ homes. When working with young children in particular, sessions are often family-focused, or centered around family collaboration and participation. This approach began in the 1980s by American researchers and was soon adopted by early childhood intervention (ECI) practitioners in Australia.

The Australian Early Child Intervention Association’s Code of Ethics instructs ECI practitioners to focus on collaborative partnerships with families, shared decision making regarding the support of their child, supporting and complementing the skills and strengths of the family, and respecting the family’s right to determine how to be involved in their child’s services. It was found that when parents were actively involved in their child’s therapy, they had improved self-efficacy outcomes and beliefs (believed in their ability to impact the care of their child). When they feel this way, they are “more likely to engage with their children in developmentally focused activities” (Thompson, 2012, p. 110).

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulties with communication and social skills. Young children with ASD who are seen in their homes most likely are involved in family-centered therapy. It is important for interventions used in this setting to follow a relationship-oriented approach so that communication and social skills can be maintained and generalized.

Thompson (2012) describes a model for family-centered music therapy that can address these skills in children with ASD. First is family-centered practice where the music therapist facilitates the development of a relationship between the parent, child, and herself that is based on collaboration and equality. Next is following the child’s lead musically and/or emotionally. Third is presenting motivating activities that entice the child to respond and/or participate. Fourth is the music therapist responding positively and with acceptance and affection. Fifth is the music therapist and/or parent engaging with the child in play. Sixth is keeping the child’s anxiety low by providing the right amount of structure, whether more or less. Next is matching the child’s communication and social abilities, which requires an understanding of the theories of social communication development. The last part of this model is the pivotal aim for a child with ASD who is working on communication and social skills, and that is for the child to initiate engagement.

The steps in this model are a way for the music therapist and parents to engage with a child as well as for parents to support their child’s development outside music therapy sessions. Thompson (2012) writes, “Supporting the active, independent participation of the child is vital for successful social skill development” (p. 113).


Melissa Heffner, MT-BC

Thompson, G. (2012). Family-centered music therapy in the home environment: Promoting interpersonal engagement between children with autism spectrum disorder and their parents. Music Therapy Perspectives, 30(2), 109-116.