Therapeutic Listening & Autism

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Therapeutic Listening (TL) is an evidence-based therapy intended to help with sensory, communication, social and self-regulation skills that are often deficit in those with autism. Learn about how TL benefits those with autism in this lesson.

Brief Overview and Definitions

Billy is a 6-year-old with moderate to severe autism. He still wears diapers because he cannot fully control bodily functions like going to the bathroom on his own. Part of this is due to his difficulty with sensory processing. Billy's pediatrician speaks with his mother and recommends that he try Therapeutic Listening, since it has been proven to help with organizing sensory experiences in the brain. After two months of listening to a CD for 30 minutes twice a day, Billy is now using the restroom more often on his own, following instructions, and communicating more with his parents.

Therapeutic Listening (TL) is an evidence-based therapy technique that involves listening to music or sounds through specialized headphones for 30-minute sessions, twice a day, in order to help with numerous problems and disorders. It was developed by Sheila Frick, an occupational therapist with a specialty in sensory processing disorders. TL has been proven to help with:

  • Sensory processing
  • Attention
  • Social skills
  • Communication
  • Following directions
  • Timing and organizing motor skills
  • Mood

Some disorders that TL has been used to treat include attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorder (SPD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a disorder characterized by problems with sensory processing, communication, social interactions and unusual repetitive behaviors. Autism can range from mild to severe, which is why it is looked at as a spectrum. A person with severe autism can have a significant intellectual disability or even be completely mute. Some problematic behaviors and qualities of people with autism are:

  • Hypersensitivity to sensory input: A person may overreact when they hear a loud noise.
  • Hyposensitivity to sensory input: A person feels a lack of stimulation from the environment and may self-stimulate by banging their head on a wall or biting their arm.
  • Inflexibility to change in routine: A mother who takes a different route to school one day due to traffic may cause her child with autism to have a tantrum.
  • Having an intense focus or interest in something: A child with autism may have a fascination with his toy cars and constantly line them up.
  • Repetitive behaviors: A child with autism may turn on and off a light over and over again.
  • Delays in speech or lack of communication with others: A child with autism may be slow in establishing a vocabulary or engaging in speech with others.
  • Lack of eye contact: An adult with autism may appear distant and unfriendly because they don't provide eye contact.
  • Social difficulties: A child with autism may not pick up on typical social cues, like when another child is bored.

Therapeutic Listening and Autism

Because of its focus on sensory integration, listening and communication, Therapeutic Listening has proven beneficial in improving the functioning of children and adults with autism.

How Does Therapeutic Listening Work?

The Therapeutic Listening clientele are typically children, though adults can gain benefits from the CDs as well. The CDs are individualized for each client's needs. Music can range from children's songs to popular music to classical music to nature sounds. Things like frequency and pitch are altered in the CDs with sophisticated sound technology. These alterations are done to target different areas of the cochlear-vestibular system in the inner ear or areas of the brain associated with the central nervous system. The music or sounds on the CDs can exercise the inner ear muscles, making listening easier, or they can stimulate a specific area of the brain, like targeting the frontal lobe to improve attention.

How Does Therapeutic Listening Help Autism?

The music or sounds used in TL for a child or adult with autism can exercise the inner ear muscles and vestibular-cochlear system, or stimulate neural pathways to different areas of the brain and central nervous system. This can improve functions associated with autism like body regulation, sensory integration, communication and social skills. Let's look at Grace as an example of how Therapeutic Listening helped her with her autism.

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