Proving the benefits of music therapy

A Victoria University of Wellington academic has been awarded nearly $100,000 in funding to research the effectiveness of music therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Person playing guitar.

The New Zealand IHC Foundation funded-project, led by Dr Daphne Rickson from Victoria’s New Zealand School of Music, will explore the potential of music therapy for 10 New Zealand children with ASD.

Dr Rickson says there is a need in New Zealand and internationally for studies that provide hard evidence about the impact music therapy can have on the development of a child’s interpersonal communication skills. These skills include attention, imitation, initiation, turn-taking and/or emotional expression.

“We know that music therapy is beneficial for children with ASD, but the nature of the therapy makes it difficult to provide evidence of this. By working alongside music therapists, we will develop a strong set of data that includes written reports and video, which can be further analysed to determine how effective music therapy can be,” says Dr Rickson.

“The most important part of this research is that we want more children with autism to receive music therapy. This research project will provide more evidence to argue the case for its place in the treatment of children with ASD.”

During the one-year project, music therapists will work with children with ASD who have never received music therapy before. The therapists will record their observations of sessions and report their results in a standardised way. The gathered data will then be evaluated further by five people who know the child well, and five autism experts who do not know the child.

“The evaluations of the case studies will be crucial, because we will have 100 evaluations from which we hope to be able to draw some statistical conclusions—something that does not yet exist for music therapy in New Zealand. On an individual level, we’ll also have information that shows how some approaches work for some children, but not for others.

“The improvisational style of therapy that is practised in New Zealand allows music therapists to respond to the child in the moment, and this is how they learn to communicate and interact socially through their music. But each child is an individual, so their therapy process is also unique. This makes it hard for researchers to do controlled trials in this field.”

Dr Rickson will begin the project in January 2018, and will work with Victoria’s Information Technology Services (ITS) department, which will develop a purpose-built online platform for data collection. She will also work with Faculty of Education’s Professor Jeff Sigafoos and his PhD students who will be invited to evaluate the case studies, as well as New Zealand music therapists.