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Well, does it work? Or doesn't it?

You may have recently seen that the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a study that cast doubts on the effectiveness of Music Therapy in treating children with autism.

CNN actually does a fairly nice job of summarizing the research but it’s worth noting that mainstream media is not always great at science reporting. If you haven’t read the abstract, it is available online and I suggest that you read it.

An abstract is merely a brief summary of the research. There are a lot of things that aren’t stated in the summary. We know how many children were involved in the study (364), the music therapy approach that was used (improvisational Music Therapy), the goals for music therapy sessions (affect sharing and joint attention) and the measurement tool used (the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule ADOS). We also know that while the music therapy group didn’t perform better than the standard care group that there weren’t significant differences between outcomes for the standard care group and music therapy group.

Music Therapy Research

What we don’t know is whether or not there was a difference in music therapy techniques used. Even though all therapists used the Improvisation Music Therapy approach, there may have been drastically different techniques used. We don’t know what countries participants were recruited from and how varying cultures may have affected the results. We also don’t know who administered the ADOS. The Car Autism Roadmap Website recommends that the ADOS is administered and interpreted by experts in Autism Spectrum Disorders who have received specific training in administering and interpreting the results. The Autism Genetic Resource Exchange suggests that the ADOS works best as a diagnostic tool rather than an measure of treatment success.

I am glad to see a well-designed research study examining the effects of Music therapy with children with Autism and increased accountability for professionals working with children with Autism. There is a need for safe and effective treatment. However, there should always be caution in interpreting research results.

In addition, this study and the reaction to it highlight some of the age old debate on how we measure success and what goals are important for our clients. Quantifiable data helps justify insurance reimbursement for treatment but many of the reasons that art and religion and music exist can’t be measured. Does music improve the client’s quality of life? Are they more likely to participate in music therapy rather than more traditional therapies? And might another method of music therapy be more successful for that client? If the answer is yes than Music Therapy might be effective after all.

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