Music therapy for autistic children

Children are introduced to music by playing a combination of instruments. PHOTO | GETTY IMAGE

What you need to know:

  • One of the reasons that music has quickly become a tool used in autism therapy is that it can stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, rather than just one. Music encourages communicative behaviour and can encourage interaction with others, which is something that autistic children have great difficulty with.

Music is an important tool for children living with autism because of its ability to engage and calm them down. A number of parents and teachers of children living with autism say they have successfully used music to teach and communicate. Perside Bijou Namatovu says she realised her son Elijah Matovu Mawa, was not as well developed as other children at six years.

After visiting several doctors and specialists with no clear diagnosis, one of the doctors finally discovered that Mawa was autistic. He advised her to start him on special therapy to equip him with certain skills.  Namatovu says she realised that although her son could hardly say mummy or daddy, he could sing and play drums.  

“Although he could not speak any words, he would bubble TV jingles and memorise praise songs from church which he would sing while alone,” says Namatovu.

With this discovery, teachers have been able to communicate with Mawa and control his behaviour. In addition to calming him down, music helps him concentrate. 

 “I have seen him make great strides since the introduction of music in his life. I recently saw him and his colleagues drumming at school and I was impressed,” she shares.   

Combined instruments

Gilbert Mugisha, a music teacher at Dorna Centre for Autism, says an autistic child’s journey with music starts as a therapy. Mugisha says they introduce children to music by playing a combination of  instruments to see which children are attracted by what instruments. After this, they allocate each child an instrument of their interest. 

“We start scheduling one-on-one sessions for two months to observe them play out particular rhythms. They might not reproduce the rhythm you play for them at that moment but later they will recall and start doing it,” Mugisha narrates.

 After two months, Mugisha says, the children are brought together to master the element of teamwork despite the different drum each of them is playing. Later, non-autistic children from the community are recruited with the aim of enabling the autistic children learn how to interact with and work with the rest of the society. This also helps to change the community’s perspective towards autistic children.


With music as part of their daily life, Mugisha says, autistic children communicate better by using some of the words they learn from music and other lessons. “So far, we have had two good performances in a space of five months. They do not speak but they hear, mimic and hum the words. You might find them trying to sing a song you taught them or trying to speak a word from the song,” Mugisha shares, adding that although autistic children tend to be antisocial, music helps them work on socialising and teamwork skills. 

Joyce Nalweyiso, who also teaches autistic children music and life skills, says autistic children usually express their anger or dissatisfaction by throwing tantrums. Nalweyiso says after music therapy, she notices a reduction in tantrums and other antisocial tendencies. 

“We used to monitor their behaviour and now see a change. Being anti-social and throwing of tantrums reduced and I attribute this to music. Before introducing music we had a lot of activities such as farming, gardening, self-care but we had to drag them to these activities. Whenever you force a person living with autism into an activity, they will employ a defensive mechanism and violence,” Nalweyiso says. 

She adds that music has improved the children’ s communication skills and confidence since most are interested in hearing sound, music or try to imitate a person singing or playing music. Nalweyiso also notices that because of music, there has been an improvement in concentration since music is an organised sound.

Concentration levels

Nalweyiso says when handling autistic children, one has to understand that their concertation levels are low. However, she says, not all children with autism are interested in music since for some, it causes a certain level of discomfort. 

However as a life skill, the children have to learn to cope with the noise, especially since they live in a society where everyone has the right to play what they want. For children who feel  the discomfort, other strategies are employed to increase their tolerance to it.

“For example, we use noise defenders that are designed to protect ears from loud noises,” Nalweyiso adds.

Who can help?

Mugisha says for a child to gain from music therapy, parents must find someone who knows how to work with autistic children. He explains that it takes patience and perseverance and the person a parent hires must possess both.

He adds that while teaching autistic children, it is imperative to use simple language, especially language they commonly use.

Dr Richard Idro, a paediatric neurologist and researcher, says a lot of therapy for autistic children revolves around a calming environment, especially since they easily get agitated by music, lights, and different colours.


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) One in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of conditions characterised by some degree of impaired social behaviour, communication and language, and a narrow range of interests and activities that are both unique to the individual and carried out repetitively.

WHO states that available scientific evidence suggests that there are probably many factors that make a child more likely to have an ASD, including environmental and genetic factors.

Available epidemiological data suggests that there is no evidence of a causal association between measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and ASD. Previous studies suggesting a causal link were found to be filled with methodological flaws according to WHO.

There is also no evidence to suggest that any other childhood vaccine may increase the risk of ASD. Evidence reviews of the potential association between the preservative thiomersal and aluminium adjuvants contained in inactivated vaccines and the risk of ASD strongly concluded that vaccines do not increase the risk of ASDs.