Onlookers back the benefits of music therapy

May 4, 2021

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher used a team of observers to evaluate the impact of music therapy on children with autism in her latest research project.

Findings from the study by Associate Professor Daphne Rickson reinforce the view held by many music therapists and families that music therapy provides a range of benefits for children with autism spectrum conditions.

Six years ago Daphne set out to find a way to provide evidence of the benefits of music therapy because standard research methods, such as randomised controlled trials, didn’t suit the practice realities of music therapy.

Music therapists employ flexible approaches that allow them to respond to the individual needs of their participants ‘in the moment’ and outcomes are not easy to measure for funders of services who want to see evidence-based practice.

Daphne saw the need to develop a research project that satisfied the demands for evidence, but was also aligned with music therapists’ values and practices.

After an initial four years of exploratory research she designed a research project that used a ‘mixed-methods’ approach. Data gathered from clinical practice was submitted to ‘evaluators’ for appraisal.

The idea of using observers came from her exploratory research in 2015 which found that people who witness music therapy can develop understanding and appreciation for music therapy.

So in 2019 she involved a variety of autism experts to evaluate music therapy case material. The inclusion of video material enabled them to see for themselves the impact that music therapy was having on children.

Her project involved 10 music therapists, each working for up to one year with a child with autism who had not had music therapy before. At the end of that year they produced their case material (descriptions, photographs, videos) for evaluation.

Music therapists and families were asked to nominate people who knew the child to provide a critical assessment of these case materials. These people included family members, teachers and other therapists – 26 in total. Six other autism experts were also invited to evaluate all 10 cases.

“The evaluators suggested that music therapy supported children to manage cognitive tasks, such as listening, attending, waiting, initiating, taking turns, and negotiating or following instructions,” Daphne says in a paper in the latest New Zealand Journal of Music Therapy.

 “They also believed it helped them to manage and express their emotions in safer ways, with several of the evaluators proposing that children became less anxious in this setting. Music seemed to support sensory regulation, both stimulating and calming children’s senses, because they had more control over their environment, making it feel safer for them.”

“This piece of work is looking at what these experts saw,” Daphne says. “It’s a matter of them seeing with their own eyes.

“I was truly surprised how passionate they were, how positive they were and how moved they were. One person with a lived experience of autism said, ‘I wish my mother had known about these things’.”

Perhaps not coincidentally given the long-running research, music therapy became the topic for review in 2020 for the New Zealand Autism Guidelines developed by the Ministries of Health and Education. Daphne’s research, funded by the IHC Foundation, has already attracted a book contract.

Caption: Ten music therapists each worked for up to one year with a child with autism who had not had music therapy before – Stock image.