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Research on music therapy, autism and intellectual disability - evidence.

January 8, 2019

It is important that we provide evidence for what we do and as an Allied Health Profession, to supply the supporting research.


I have selected the articles which I have been referencing recently in NDIS applications. This list is by no means exhaustive and the synopses far from comprehensive - but it directs you to the salient features and findings of the research. 

To access full transcripts of these articles you will find that Voices.no is a free and accessible journal as is the Australian Journal of Music Therapy. Google searches of the articles mostly give the abstract only. Google Scholar  and Researchgate are also available sources.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Music therapy research with people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and severe intellectual disability has shown that music therapy creates engaging and motivating conditions for interactions with others. (Thompson & McFerran, 2015).


 Johnels, Asberg, Johnels, & Rademark(2016) discuss the ability of  music to act as a scaffold for interaction and social interactive potential of music. Additionally, long term shared musicking aids self- esteem, confidence, acceptance and success, and for friendships to develop and be sustained. (Pavlicevic, O’Neill, Powell, 2014).

In research specific to Autism and music therapy, a Cochrane Data base of systematic reviews found that music therapy is superior to placebo therapy for developing verbal and gestural communicative skills (Gold & Wigram, 2006). Whipple (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of the research and found that Music Therapy is an effective treatment with Autism Spectrum Disorders in early childhood to develop interpersonal skills, personal responsibility, and play.



Gold, C & Wigram,T. (2006)Music therapy for ASD  Cochrane Data base of systematic reviews Issue 1


Johnels, Jakob; Åsberg; Johnels, Linn; Rådemark, Carina;  2016. Fostering high-quality social interaction together with individuals with profound intellectual disability. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy; 2016 Supplement; v.25. 118-119.ISSN: 0809-8131, Database: CINAHL Complete             


Pavlicevic, Mercédès; O'Neil, Nicky; Powell, Harriet, 2014.Making Music, Making Friends: Long-Term Music Therapy with Young Adults with Severe Learning Disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, v18 n1 p.5. (EJ1076604), Database: ERIC


Thompson, Grace A.; McFerran, Katrina Skewes, 2015.Music therapy with young people who have profound intellectual and developmental disability: Four case studies exploring communication and engagement within musical interactions. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, Mar 2015; 40(1): 1-11. 11p.  ISSN: 1366-8250, Database: CINAHL Complete


Whipple, J; (2012) Music Therapy as an effective treatment with Autism Spectrum Disorders in early childhood: A meta-analysis.  In P. Kern & M. Humpal (Eds.), Early childhood music therapy and autism spectrum disorders: Developing potential in young children and their families (pp. 59-76). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 


Intellectual disability

     Pavlicevic, Mercédès; O'Neil, Nicky; Powell, Harriet (2014) Making Music, Making Friends: Long-Term Music Therapy with Young Adults with Severe Learning Disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, v18 n1 p5-19. (EJ1076604), Database: ERIC                                               

Synopsis: In this research a focus group found long term shared musicking  aided self esteem, confidence, acceptance and success, and for friendships to develop and  be sustained rather than lead to developmental change for adults with intellectual disabilities.


    Johnels, Jakob Åsberg; Johnels, Linn; Rådemark, Carina. Fostering high-quality social interaction together with individuals with profound intellectual disability. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy; 2016 Supplement; v.25. 118-119. 2 (Abstract) ISSN: 0809-8131, Database: CINAHL Complete

Synopsis: Development and evaluation of a model for fostering high quality social interactive behaviours in direct support staff and family members of a person with Profound ID. Found 5 themes including theme of music as a scaffold for interaction and social interactive potential of music.        Highlights how music therapy constitutes an important activity for supporting high-quality social interaction.


   Lee Juyoung (2014)You light up my life : a phenomenological study of interpersonal relationships between music therapists and adults with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities.             

Synopsis: Five Dyads studying interpersonal relationships between music therapist and participant.


   Morris, Stephanie H.(2014) Quality of Life Issues for Three Young Adults with Developmental Disabilities Receiving Music Therapy During Transition from High School to Adult Life: A Phenomenological Inquiry  In: http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ohiou1399566841; Ohio University / OhioLINK, 2014 Language: English, Database: Networked Digital Library of Theses

Synopsis: Four themes identified. 1. Connection with music allowed for connection with people hence socialisation. 2. Love of music encourages focussed attention. 3. Families will search and provide services to benefit their child. 4. Music therapy increased quality of life through a transition period.


                Hooper, Jeff; Wigram, Tony; Carson, Derek; Lindsay, Bill. (2008) A review of the music and intellectual disability literature (1943–2006). II: Experimental writing           Music therapy perspectives, 26(2) p80. ISSN: 0734-6875. 

Synopsis: Identifies comparative research on the musical aptitude of people with and without an intellectual disability, and investigations that assessed the musical aptitude of diagnostic subgroups within the intellectual disability population (Down Syndrome, musical savants, autistic spectrum disorder, and Williams Syndrome). Also discussed is research that examined how individuals with an intellectual disability responded to active (improvisation and music activity therapy) and receptive (contingent, contingent-interrupted, and non-contingent music) interventions. 


       Hooper, Jeff; Wigram, Tony; Carson, Derek; Lindsay, Bill (2008)A review of the music and intellectual disability literature (1943–2006). I: Descriptive and philosophical writing.  Music therapy perspectives, 26(2) p66. ISSN: 0734-6875. 

Synopsis: Descriptive and philosophical literature is examined, including surveys that consider client responses, methodological issues, and music therapy provision. Potential benefits of improvisation, music activity therapy, and receptive music interventions.


     Murphy, Melissa; McFerran, Katrina (2017) Exploring the literature on music participation and social connectedness for young people with intellectual disability: a critical interpretive synthesis. Journal of Intellectual disabilities 21,(4) 297-314                               

Synopsis: Review of 27 articles referencing the use of music for social connectedness. Most groups reported were 'closed ' groups and used outdated 'expert model' of working.  


     McFerran, K; Shoemark ,H (2013)How musical engagement promotes well-being in education contexts: The case of a young man with profound and multiple disabilities.     International  Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well Being.  Vol 8.

Synopsis: Video Analysis, Hermeneutic phenomenological findings.Four  Principals identified: The music therapist listens; the MT takes responsibility for structure; Spontaneous initiation sought from participant; Relationship is built over time.


    Lee, J. Meaningful participation and inclusion of adults with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities in music therapy. Journal of applied research in intellectual; JUL 2014; 27; 4; p376-p376, Database: Social Sciences Citation Index                       


   Dunning, Brittany A.; Martens, Marilee A.; Jungers, Melissa K. (2015) Music lessons are associated with increased verbal memory in individuals with Williams syndrome.  Academic Journal of Research in Developmental Disabilities.  Vol. 36, p565-578. 14p. DOI: 10.1016/j.ridd.2014.10.032. , Database: Education Research Complete                                      

Synopsis: 44 participants, 4 - 48 yrs. Average verbal IQ of 75. Used unfamiliar or novel music. Found significant results for those who had formal music training compared to no formal music training. Conclude that music lessons may impact the neural pathways of verbal memory for people with WS. Found that music lessons help people with Williams syndrome to remember verbal information.


       Alistair Robert C, Meta K A. (2016) Bigger Picture: Community Music Therapy Groups in Residential Settings for People with Learning Disabilities. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, Vol 16, Iss. 3                                             

Synopsis: Survey of music activity use in Ireland with people with ID. Staff who initiate music are not usually MT's or trained. Use of Training CD, music and movement activities and Musical  instrument activities. Observed benefits: improved mood, and interaction with other; meeting client plan goals. Absence of RMT's noted and often desired (90% of respondents) Fewer than 10% have access to RMT.

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