The Status of Music Therapists and Music Educators Working with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in School Settings


Jacqueline C. Smith, University of Hartford


In 1943 a physician at Johns Hopkins University, Leo Kanner, published a paper about 11 children in his care whom he labeled as autistic. These children demonstrated an inability to relate to others, a resistance to being picked up or held by parents, deficits in language, fear of loud noises, obsessive desire for repetition and sameness, and “a withdrawal from the fabric of social life into the self. Hence the words ‘autistic’ and ‘autism’ from the Greek word autos meaning ‘self’” (Frith, 2003, p.5). In 1944, another physician in Vienna, Hans Asperger, published a paper about four children whom he also labeled with the term autistic. He noted differences between Kanner’s observations in that these children displayed average intelligence and more notably, no deficits in language (Asperger, 1944/1991). Since these seminal works in the field of psychiatry, researchers have investigated the understanding, processing, and emotional impact of music on individuals with autism (Molnar-Szakacs, 2009).


Music educators are finding increased numbers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in their music classrooms and ensembles (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). Considering the increased number of children diagnosed with ASD in music classrooms, the recent research on pitch perception and emotion perception in music for children with ASD (e.g., Bonnel et al., 2010; Gebauer et al., 2014; Quintin et al., 2011) and the desire of music educators to acquire competencies in successfully including students with ASD in their classrooms and ensembles (e.g., Cassidy & Colwell, 2011; Hammel & Gerrity, 2012; Whipple & VanWeelden, 2012), I sought the input of professionals inside and outside of music education. The purpose of this study was to examine the status of music therapists within school settings, and the strategies music therapists and music educators use for successful outcomes with students with ASD. In addition, I examined music educators’ perception of support from special education professionals, including music therapists, when working with students with ASD.


The research questions were: (1) To what extent are music therapists providing services to students with ASD in school settings? (2) What strategies do music therapists use to successfully include children with ASD in group settings? (3) What strategies do music educators use to successfully include children with ASD in music classrooms or ensembles? (4) To what extent do music educators collaborate with special education professionals to successfully include children with ASD in music classrooms and ensembles? Music educators and music therapists (N = 603) answered a questionnaire about their work with children with ASD in school settings. Using factor analysis, I found that music educators and music therapists use support strategies in four areas: (a) social support, (b) sensory support, (c) structural support, and (d) communication support. Music educators and music therapists reported few collaboration opportunities in school settings, and a need for increased communication. Music educators continue to need support from special education professionals and administrators to provide professional development for gaining knowledge about strategies for working with students with ASD.



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