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Home > News > Blogs > Creative Approaches > Music with Sean

Music with Sean

Jasmine Miller

Across our services a number of individuals benefit from music therapy, but what is music therapy and how can it help people with autism?  Head Teacher Jasmine Miller talks to us about sessions at New Struan School and the benefits it has for pupils.

“Music therapy can be beneficial to people of all ages and abilities but it has particular benefits for children with autism.  Janet McLachlan is Head Music Therapist from Nordoff-Robbins Scotland, a charity that provides music therapy.  She has been coming in to our school for almost two years and she delivers weekly music therapy sessions.

Janet McLachlan and pupil Sean

Music therapy can support the social and emotional development of a child with autism.  It can also be effective in reducing anxiety, something that many of our pupils experience daily. For one of our pupils, the most relaxed he is all week is when he is in a music therapy session.  Essentially it is about using music to reach out and meet a person at their level.  Janet always takes her lead from the pupils and the music played is at a tempo and rhythm that will engage them and capture their attention. As well as enabling pupils to get the most out of sessions in terms of enjoyment, Janet also introduces gradual changes to challenge them and support their development. 

There are aspects of music therapy that can also aid communication.  Janet uses music to map verbal commands to actions. For example, a song about shaking hands (sung in a rhythm and musical key that engages the pupil) can be used along with the action of shaking hands to improve the pupils understanding of that action. By pairing music with actions repetitively, research suggests that the brain pathways needed to speak can be enhanced and reinforced (Wan et al, 2011). Furthermore for a child that struggles to communicate, being able to bang a drum or quietly strum a guitar can give them the opportunity to express themselves in a positive way. Typically, Janet will match the pupil’s music – it’s volume and speed, allowing a dialogue all of its own to develop.

Pupil Sean began his music therapy sessions at the start of January.  Initially sessions took place in Sean’s own environment:  in his classroom where he would be completely covered under a blanket or a jumper.  For the first four weeks Janet used early stage interaction techniques such as bouncing balls and patting the floor in order to engage with Sean. It was on Sean’s fifth session there was a breakthrough.  Janet was in Sean’s classroom quietly strumming a guitar when she asked him if he would like a turn.  A small hand briefly appeared from under the jumper and Sean strummed a chord.  From this momentary engagement, things have progressed to the stage where Sean now makes his own way to the music therapy room and is enjoying playing a range of instruments.

Sean is an energetic boy who likes playing the drums and the reed horns which make a trumpet like sound.  Although there is a structure to sessions with a ‘welcome song’ and a ‘goodbye song’,  Janet also enables Sean to make choices as to what instrument he would like to play. This is a further benefit of music therapy: it supports pupils in making choices.

Sean has come so far in his music therapy sessions.  He is now motivated to play instruments in order to gain positive reactions from others, and  the current focus of sessions is to build Sean’s confidence to enable him to gain  satisfaction directly himself.   By enabling Sean to engage in music therapy for his own enjoyment, his listening skills could grow and in turn, his engagement with Janet, ultimately enabling him to move forward in his development.

Talking about the changes she has seen in Sean, Class Teacher, Gillian Millar said, “Sean benefits greatly from the one to one sessions Janet offers and we have seen Sean become more confident and independent in his approach around the whole school.”

Sean is just one example from a number of pupils at the school who enjoys music therapy.  Although the benefits may be gradual, for some children with autism it can be a way of reaching them in a way that speech alone simply cannot.”


Wan CY, Bazen L, Baars R, Libenson A, Zipse L, et al. (2011) Auditory-Motor Mapping Training as an Intervention to Facilitate Speech Output in Non-Verbal Children with Autism: A Proof of Concept Study. PLoS ONE 6(9)