Collaborative and improvisational music therapy increases emotional expression and wellbeing in autistic people

Improvisational music therapy increases wellbeing in autistic people. In this study, researchers reconnected with two autistic people who had participated in music therapy as children, to revisit their experiences in music therapy over a decade later, reflect on their childhood experiences, and record a song together.

The study used improvised song creation to allow free expression of the participants, and evaluated the reflections of the participants. Researchers found that improvisational music therapy fosters authentic emotional expression and processing, and builds self-esteem, competence and confidence in this population. These elements go on to support the overall mental wellbeing and resilience of each individual, and add more weight to the body of evidence supporting the use of improvisation in music therapy (worth remembering the next time someone tells you “Spotify is my music therapy”, which is a phrase I hear from ill-informed people in many different professions).

“Arts-based research can provide a platform for embracing neurodivergence as a unique way of being, rather than something that needs to be moulded into societal expectations of normalcy.” -Lehmann-Kuit, A., Short, A., & Catanzaro, M. (2023).

The researchers established some valuable core themes as a result of this study: that “Collaborating brings joy and connection”, “Expressive confidence is used as an internal resource”, and “Longitudinal reflection brings insight and joy”. That second one really jumped out to me – through improvisational music therapy, the participants were able to better communicate their own emotions and deal with stress outside of a music setting.

What is improvisation?
As a blog-writer and music therapist, I feel compelled to add that improvisation in this context is not the same as that which is fostered at music school or in jazz clubs. In music therapy, improvisation simply refers to opening a state of flow between your ideas and your verbal or musical/instrumental expressions. There are no rules about structures or harmonies or anything like that. There are no wrong notes or wrong ideas, and it is a safe space to experiment and feel free.

Improvisation is a valuable tool, because – as the researchers note – it paves a way for freedom of expression that makes us better at dealing with our feelings – it makes us more emotionally competant.

Lehmann-Kuit, A., Short, A., & Catanzaro, M.(2023). “It’s my way of releasing I guess”: A longitudinal neurodiversity-affirming study sharing the perceptions and collaborative song creations of two autistic former music therapy participants. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 34, 21–37.

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