Autism Spectrum Disorders, Co-Treatment with ABA Therapy

During my time working as a Behavior Interventionist, I implemented programming developed by Board Certified Behavior Analysts.  Based on need and with consultation, music was incorporated into the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) sessions.



Why Music?

Music is a powerful tool because it occurs in the moment, is often predictable, and stimulates numerous areas of the brain as it is being processed.  Music experiences generally address various domains of development simultaneously.  I will attempt to categorize them and focus on only a few.  I have used music in ABA sessions to work on cognitive skills, social skills, and to maintain attention.



Cognitive Skills

This has especially proved helpful in teaching phone numbers or addresses.  One of the kids I worked with had a program to learn his address.  By putting it to a song, he was able to remember it within a day.  In this case, I just made up my own short song and sang it with him a few times.  I included the discriminative stimulus that was written into his program in the song so that he would generalize better when I did move to a verbal cue (versus the sung cue).


Social Skills

Instruments, such as the guitar or harmonica, are fun to bring in to the sessions occasionally.  They provide a sense of novelty to the child that facilitates social interactions with me as the facilitator.  Instruments can also provide sensory exploration.  One of my younger clients liked to feel the strings of the guitar, either by strumming them or just running his fingers along them.  Sometimes I put his feet on the body of the guitar so he can feel the vibrations through it.  These are all ways of facilitating social interactions.  In another session, the child was playing by himself and not engaging with me.  I started singing (improvising) about what he was doing as he played.  He then started doing other things to see if I would also sing about those, thus creating a social interaction game.


Movement to music provides a great way for kids to have a break from more formal ABA work while still working on social awareness and listening skills.  In my experience, the funnier the song, the more engagement you’ll get from the child.  If you have a group of children, turn-taking with instruments can also be incorporated.

Some movement songs require the child to use their imagination, while others involve following a leader that comes up with original motor movements (another opportunity for turn-taking).  This requires the child to watch a peer and imitate them.

Most often, I incorporate movement songs in “mock circle time” with parents, siblings, and peers that might be visiting.  During this time, I am charting on goals such as hand raising to answer questions and sitting quietly/ attending to the teacher.  In these mock circle times, I choose to incorporate a hello song, a story (with questions about the content), and then sing favorite songs while I play the guitar, take turns with instruments/ imitating peers, or do movement to music.


Maintaining Attention

Elements of the music can be modified in the moment to elicit different responses from the child.  Maybe the child is loosing interest in what is being presented.  At that time, a music therapist might change an element in the music (volume, speed, style, key, etc.) in hopes that the modification will reengage them in the experience.

The skill of improvising musically and/ or vocally is a useful skill.  When working one-on-one with a child, a music therapist may base the speed and style of the song upon what the child is doing at that time.  For instance, if the child has a lot of energy, the tempo of the song might be faster; if the child is in a lounging mood, the speed might start slower.



In my experience, music added to the structure of ABA programming enhances the learning experience for the child.  Contact me today to see how your child may benefit from Music Therapy!




Music Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet from– songs for teaching academic curriculum concepts

Movement Songs for Children – compiled by the director of Harmony Music Therapy in Salt Lake City; an excellent blog with ideas for using music

My favorite movement songs: “The Goldfish” – Laurie Berkner; “Animal Action” – Greg and Steve; “Pokey Bear;” and “The Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea”