top of page

Researchers look for medical proof music therapy helps kids with autism

Photo: Laura De Gennaro demonstrates a music therapy session. She is conducting research to provide the rigorous scientific proof that music therapy is clinically effective.


HOST: Some therapists have been using music for years to help kids on the autism spectrum overcome issues of hyperactivity or speech problems. But evidence it’s clinically effective is mostly anecdotal. And insurers don’t pay for therapies that have only anecdotal support.

Now, researchers are in the final stages of a study that hopes to provide the rigorous scientific proof that music therapy is effective. Camille von Kaenel reports.


VON KAENEL: When Marcia Weiner’s son was eight, he didn’t always keep his hands to himself, which is something kids on the autism spectrum sometimes have trouble with. So his mom started taking him to to music therapy with Jennifer Goodman. She calls herself Jammin Jenn. She wrote a song for him and posted it on Youtube.

AMBI SONG Jenn: And if you want to give somebody a kiss. John: Can I have a kiss please? *kiss* Jenn: You always need to ask.. Because you… John: keep your hands to yourself. Jenn: You keep your hand to yourself… That’s the rule…

Weiner says her son’s therapy worked.

MARCIA: We could go back and cite that song if there was a situation where he might reach out and touch somebody, and he would immediately be able to say, oh, ok, I’m going to stop.

Now, her son is twelve. He sings in his middle school’s choir. But he has a hard time focusing, and that’s what Jammin Jenn is working on now.

MARCIA: When he is on with her, he is so focused.

But her son is just one example. The problem is, insurance companies want more than examples before they pay for music therapy. Right now, the majority still don’t pay for music therapy.

Anecdotes like Jonathan’s just don’t cut it in the world of medicine, says Michael Thaut. He leads the center for biomedical research in music at Colorado State University.

THAUT: If somebody says, the most successful intervention is this and this but I can’t prove it because I can’t measure it, I wouldn’t even go to a dentist that tells me that.

There’s a scientific framework in place to measure things like clinical treatments: the testing needs to be standardized and other researchers need to be able to replicate it.

THAUT: That’s just a health care standard.

Thaut wants to rewire the brains of kids on the spectrum who have erratic movements or speech problems. He uses MRIs, or brain scans, to track changes in his patients. But MRIs can’t see everything.

Ken Aigen teaches music therapy at NYU. He says reducing music therapy to just raw data doesn’t do it justice.

AIGEN: It’s a disservice to try to bend that treatment into an overly strict scientific and medical framework.

Aigen focuses on holistic changes, like improving the social skills of kids with developmental disabilities. He says that makes it even harder to standardize.

AIGEN: Because we don’t know what music will work with any given client, it depends what the client does in the moment. The reason it’s effective is we’re making it so individualized.

Now, a group of international researchers is trying to prove that individualized music therapy really works. They’re funded by the Norwegian government, and they’re wrapping research up in the next year. It’s the biggest study of a therapy for autism that isn’t a pharmaceutical. Researchers in twelve countries have seen around 300 patients over the last five years or so. 50 of them came through the U.S. site, a facility on Long Island.

CARPENTE: When they hear about us, they come here, they fill out all the paperwork…

John Carpente is leading the research at Molloy College. He says patients get screened, then get randomly broken up into three groups. Two groups will come in for music therapy, either once a week or three times a week. One group will have no therapy. This is a randomized control study, which Carpente calls…

CARPENTE: The gold standard in research.

AMBI: Door opening

AMBI: Musical set-up

AMBI: Song (underneath, with me explaining)

And this is what a session might sound like. Laura De Gennaro, the clinical coordinator at the center for autism here, plays the role of a patient at the drums and cymbals while Carpente is at the piano.

CARPENTE: And whatever she does, I want to compose music around that to make that into the greatest thing possible.

Each session is slightly different depending on what the patient wants to do. Carpente might start singing. They might giggle together.

CARPENTE: So just in this little interaction, think of all the skills that Laura needs to have in place.

She needs to stay focused, she needs to catch visual cues like a smile or musical cues like a certain note. She needs to follow patterns. These are all things kids with autism might struggle with, and that music might be able to teach. NYU’s Ken Aigen was talking about this improvisational technique before. Carpente was his student.

AMBI: Song out.

In the study, patients get music therapy for five months, but stay involved for a year. Gennero tests the kids at different time points to measure the severity of their autism, and whether it changes.

DE GENNARO: We’ve either seen that the scores go down, which means that they’re less severe, or we’ve seen a maybe fairly consistent one across the board.

The researchers need to compile all their data and submit it for peer review. But Carpente hopes the study’s scientific design will click with the medical community.

CARPENTE: I don’t know if that’s the way to go, but we are just joining in, and hopefully that we can get in there with their language.

For future research, Carpente says he’s hoping to include some sort of brain imaging. Just to have some more evidence.

Camille von Kaenel, Columbia Radio News.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page