Music for children with ADHD and Autism

Written by Shankar Mahadevan Academy on 14 August 2015

Ankit Vohra, aged 9, from India’s capital Delhi, is awkward and shifty eyed and refuses to make eye contact- a typical behaviour associated with autism. When taken for his first music therapy lesson, he reluctantly enters the room that has a huge display of musical instruments, dodges his doctor’s gaze, half sits on a chair and begins to blankly stare at the floor. Half an hour into some peppy music, he makes a rare eye contact; a small step forward.

Now, it is 18 months since Ankit’s first visit to the music therapist. Ankit has had many sessions where he has discovered his special love for music. With encouragement from this therapist, he has learnt to improvise music on the instruments. He interacts with other children in his group session classes using gestures and gives them directions to play music slow or fast.

Music has made Ankit more self-assured and confident. He is coping better with school life. His interactions with other children, relatives and friends has improved significantly. The therapy sessions have made life a lot easier and happier not only for Ankit, but his entire family.

Uma Shankar, mother of Ved Shankar, 8, always found him a very active, loud, and hard-to-tame child. "He'd go his whole day angry and defiant, and yelling and upset," she says. "It just seemed like he was so unhappy. I'd never see smiles out of him." Diagnosed with both ADHD and Autism, Uma and her husband have been sorting out how to best deal with his dual conditions. Uma was happy to find Ved significantly calmer right after his first music therapy class.

They have decided to go in for a combination of medication and music therapy for their son — medication for the ADHD and therapy for the autism. After a year of music therapy classes, Ved is a much calmer child than before and is slowly developing his patience and confidence.

The above examples are just two of out millions affected by ADHD or Autism or both. In exploring the various possibilities of treatment, music, when used as a therapy, has brought hope to several.    

The proportion of children and teens around the world who have a developmental disability such as autism has increased significantly since the late 1990s. Statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control state that one in every 150 children in United States is diagnosed with Autism, which is approximately one new diagnosis in every 20 minutes. This is 17% more than the figures for 1990. In India, experts estimate that every 2-6 children out of every 1000 have Autism (figures may vary as many cases are not diagnosed), with the prevalence rate of autism approximating 1 in 250. While existing scientific data suggests ADHD and ASD to be largely genetic with the plausibility of environmental factors, the specific causes are often not known, and very frequently, the two may overlap.

So what exactly are ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders?

ADHD (Attention- Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder) and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are recognized early childhood disorders, characterized by core deficits in socialization, communication and behavior with a varying range of severity of symptoms.

ADHD is one of the most common neuropsychiatric disorders seen in early childhood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors and can be excessively active. Three types of ADHD exist:

  • predominately hyperactive-impulsive
  • predominately inattentive
  • combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive

Though ADHD is not curable, it can be successfully managed with behavioural therapy, lifestyle changes and medication.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder characterized by core deficits in socialization, communication and behavior skills. Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties, stereotyped or repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory issues, and in some cases, cognitive delays.

Many parents when first confronted with the diagnosis that their child is autistic or has ADHD, are shocked and confused. Many others are not fully aware of the disorder itself or the various possible treatments/therapies that can help better the condition. This coupled with unfavorable reactions from their social circle including friends, relatives and peers can drive parents into frustration or denial. Dealing with situations in a positive, practical way and making the most of any opportunities for support as early as possible is crucial to the development of skills of the child and the quality of life of the entire family.

Here are some steps that can help parents deal with the life-changing diagnosis:

  • Begin steps for detailed assessment and early intervention
  • Make sure the professional who made the diagnosis fully explains your options
  • Understand alternate therapies, lifestyle changes and behavior corrections
  • Provide people who are likely to interact most with your child with information on the disorder and encourage discussion on the issue.
  • Join support groups

While existing scientific data suggests ADHD and ASD to be largely genetic with the plausibility of environmental factors, the specific causes are often not known, and very frequently, the two may overlap. That is why, families of children with ADHD and ASD are increasingly being counseled by experts to try out therapies that are not based in the realm of conventional medical or psychological practice. Of the many therapies that have been studied, including diet therapy, yoga and physical therapy, natural supplements therapy etc., music therapy has shown several positive effects, especially in enhancing social skills and communication development in children with Autism and ADHD.

Can music, when used as a therapy, help children with Autism and ADHD?

Research and independent studies conducted in the field of music therapy, especially when used specifically in children with ADHD and ASD, mostly point towards positive and encouraging results.Oliver Sacks, M.D., professor of neurology at Columbia University and author of the book Musicophilia,believes that "Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music". He believes that the power of music therapy can help vault the neural breaches of Autism.

The Autism Child Development Centre, Navi Mumbai, India has reported marked improvements in social awareness, interaction, attention, concentration, and motor and perceptual skills in children undergoing regular music therapy sessions. Music therapy also helped increase the desire to communicate.

Ganesh Anantharaman, a trained behavioural scientist and director of Sampoorna Music Therapy Centre for Children with Autism, Bangalore, challenges the popular belief that autism impairs the motivation to learn. He believes that music therapy is a different route to improve fine and gross motor skills. "The goals of music therapy are emotional, social and psychological based rather than practical and skill-based”

A study conducted by the University Putra Malaysia (UPM), showed that weekly music therapy sessions can address behaviors like restlessness, aggression toward other children, noisiness and tantrums. In a study conducted with 41 children, marked improvements were seen over a ten-month period.

How does music actually work towards bringing positive results?

As seen from the various studies mentioned above, music therapy has helped in increasing attention and focus, reducing hyperactivity, and strengthening social skills in kids with ADHD and ASD.

Music provides structure: Music is constructed on rhythm, which is basically a linear structure, and structure is soothing to an ADHD brain struggling to regulate itself to stay on a linear path. Kirsten Hutchison, a music therapist at Music Works Northwest, explains further. "Music exists in time, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. That structure helps an ADHD child plan, anticipate and react”.

Music fires up synapses: Research shows that pleasurable music increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating attention, working memory, and motivation has been found to be in low supply in ADHD brains. Patti Catalano, a neurologic music therapist explains how music therapy can help. "Music shares neural networks with other cognitive processes. Brain imaging has shown music lights up the left and right lobes. The goal of music therapy is to build up those activated brain muscles over time to help overall function."

Music is social:  Most evident of ADHD and ASD symptoms is the deficiency in social skills. However, music and social skills go hand in hand. Tomaino, a 30-year veteran in music therapy, explains how music therapy can enhance social skills. "Think of an orchestra. If one instrument is missing, you can’t play the piece. All 'voices' are necessary." Hutchison, who teaches an eight-week course for children titled "Social Skills Through Music”, has this to say. "Students learn to listen, take turns, anticipate changes, and pick up on cues in ways they might not do outside of a music-therapy session.”

Online music therapy through the Shankar Mahadevan Academy

The Shankar Mahadevan Academy is exploring ways to create meaningful connections for these children and to have programs that:

Use musical tunes and specific songs to communicate frequently used instructions for regular day to day activities. For example: songs on personal hygiene practices like brushing teeth or postures like sit straight to eat.

Create an hour or 2 of “family music group” activity that can be simply listening to music and singing along. Or more elaborate and fun activities that include inviting friends and family to sing together or even a full-blown community concert.

The online music programs can be a great help especially when therapy sessions are either infrequent or expensive or both. The courses contain creative multi-media content and a variety of fun activities that will engage the child and provide an atmosphere conducive to learning. Being online, the course helps the child open up more in his own personal space. Parents can use the engaging music and activities in the programs to interact and engage with the child.  Interested people and to know more, please email us at

These programs may be used as a supplementary program in addition to regular music therapy sessions.