I love music therapy. I am fascinated with the science of it, the art of it, and the humanity of it. It’s intellectually and emotionally challenging and rewarding. I have chosen to make music therapy my life’s work. No matter what particular “job” I may be doing—Regulatory Affairs Associate, PhD student, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Clinician, Teacher—I am a Music Therapist.
So you can imagine that my feather’s get a little ruffled when I read that, according to the Autism Science Foundation, music therapy is a “psychological and behavioral non-evidenced-based treatment:”
Music Therapy: Music therapy aims to mitigate cognitive, behavioral, social, and sensory-motor impairments in individuals with ASD. Although music therapy may be rewarding for individuals with ASD, there is no strong scientific evidence for its efficacy in improving functioning. (underline added for emphasis)
My first reaction to statements like these is one of defensiveness. It’s that initial fight, flight, or freeze reaction our bodies have when it perceives a potential threat—even one of an intellectual nature.
But then I read it more closely and I realize a couple of things. One, as in most cases, people who make claims that music therapy “doesn’t work” haven’t done their homework. Either through ignorance, lack of experience, or an unwillingness to be open to new ideas, these naysayers do not understanding what music therapy really is.
They have not been there when a qualified practitioner used a low, soft, slowly-moving vocal line to help organize a neonate’s systems, regulating his or her heart rate and breathing.
They have not witnessed how a particular song can trigger a reaction in an older adult with late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease nor how the music therapist can then use that reaction to create a moment of real connectedness with loved ones who are present.
They have not seen how music can bridge the communication divide that commonly occurs with a child on the autism spectrum, thus starting the process of allowing that child to engage and communicate with others.
Two, in this particular instance, the Autism Science Foundation has a very narrow definition of what they consider “evidence-based practice.” In my understanding, the best form of evidence-based practice integrates the best available research with clinician experience and wisdom and client values. The Autism Science Foundation only utilizes one prong of that three prong approach: To be considered evidence-based, a treatment must be thoroughly investigated in multiple well-designed scientific studies and show measurable, sustained improvements in targeted areas.
Thus in my perspective it seems that the Autism Science Foundation not only has a narrow understanding of music therapy itself, but it has a narrow understanding of what it considers “evidence-based.”
Unfortunately, though, the problem is still here. So what is a music therapist to do then when faced with a situation like this?
Well we can get angry about it, griping and bemoaning the fact that we feel we are always justifying the work we do.
Or . . . we can view this as an opportunity to educate and share this wonderful passion we have with others. We can send letters. We can submit our own evidence (I know some of you out there have bibliographies on music therapy and autism). We can invite our clients to submit their testimonials and share how music therapy has helped their loved one.
We can choose to use these moments—these challenges—in a positive, proactive, and professional way. Each and every time.