Teaching Music to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder


 The “Lost Generation,” a term popularized by Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), refers to the young men and women who experienced the brutality of World War I that left them disillusioned and in despair.[1] Today, researchers use the “Lost Generation” to describe adults with autism spectrum conditions who were not correctly or never diagnosed.[2] Recalling their childhood educations, these adults recounted their experiences of feeling mistreated, misunderstood, and most regrettably, like they had missed opportunities. As the young people whose lives were changed forever by their experiences in World War I, adults on the autism spectrum could not help but wonder how their lives would be different if they had received better formal educations when they were younger.[3]

     Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a pervasive developmental disorder that has gained public awareness in recent years. According to the United States Department of Education, the number of school-age students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, reported under the category of autism increased significantly from 2008 to 2016; twenty-seventy states saw increases of more than 100% and twenty-one states saw increases of 50 to 99%.[4] With the trend towards inclusion, music teachers are also expected to see an increased number of students with ASD in music classrooms. Hourigan states that music educators have found that these children have a natural affinity to music.[5] Molnar‐Szakacs’ study strongly suggests that “music elicits special attention for children with autism.”[6] Some children with ASD don’t respond to spoken language but respond to music. Also, many students with ASD are capable of understanding simple and complex musical emotions as well as acquiring skills in music.[7]  Reece’s research indicates that music enhances the language skills of children with ASD.[8]  The benefit of music to students of ASD is multifaceted and therefore, music becomes a critical part of the students’ education. However, teaching students with ASD can be quite challenging—successful inclusion of students with ASD in music classrooms requires a curriculum that will meet the learning style of the student, an environment that can minimize barriers and distractions, and the teaching method that can effectively deliver instructions and materials to the student. 

     The term autism has evolved, but in the past, the concept of autism has been mostly associated with “learning disabilities” or “mental retardation.”[9] Before the mid-1900s, students with disabilities had limited or no access to public education.[10] The turning point came in 1975 when the United States Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act or Public Law 94-142, the first legislation that mandated a free appropriate (FAPE) public education in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability.[11] This legislation specifically mentioned the use of arts as a teaching tool for students with special needs.[12] The law was later amended in 1990 and renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in which autism was added to the list of identified disabilities.[13] This law is significant to both music educators and students with ASD because it opened the doors for these students to receive music education in public schools.  It also presents opportunities and challenges to music educators to understand the learning characteristics of students with ASD and to accommodate these students in the music classrooms using the most effective teaching methods.


[1] “What Was the Lost Generation?” Lost Generation | 1920s, Anti-Materialism, last accessed March 5, 2019,

[2] Meng-Chuan Lai, and Simon Baron-Cohen, “Identifying the Lost Generation of Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions,” The Lancet Psychiatry 2, no. 11 (2015): 1013-027. DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00277-1.

[3] Marina Sarris, “Lost Generation: Growing Up with Autism Before the ‘Epidemic,’” Interactive Autism Network, last modified July 25, 2017,

[4] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “40th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2018, Part B—Assistance for Education of All Children with Disabilities,” last accessed March 11, 2019. parts-b-c/40th-arc-for-idea.pdf.

[5] Ryan Hourigan and Amy Hourigan, “Teaching Music to Children with Autism: Understandings and Perspectives,” Music Educators Journal 96, no. 1 (2009): 40-45. DOI: 10.1177/0027432109341370.

[6] Istvan Molnar‐Szakacs and Pamela Heaton, “Music: A Unique Window into the World of Autism,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1252, no. 1 (2012): 318-24. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06465.x.

[7] Hourigan, “Teaching Music.”

[8] Adam Reece, Adam Ockelford, and Nigel Marshall, “The Interaction between Music and Language in Learning and Recall in Children with Autism Spectrum Condition,” (PhD diss., University of Roehampton, 2015).

[9] Christina Raiti, “Evolution of Autism in Public Schooling.” Educ 300: Education Reform, Past and Present, last modified April 24, 2014.

[10] Alice-Ann Darrow. “Ableism and Social Justice: Rethinking Disability in Music Education,” in The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, ed. Cathy Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, and P. Woodford (Oxford University Press, 2015), 204-215; “Thirty-five Years of Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA,” U.S. Department of Education, last modified November 22, 2010,

[11] Individuals with Disability Education Act, U.S.Code 20 (2004) §1424; U.S Department of Education,“Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA.”

[12] U.S. Department of Education. “Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities IDEA.”

[13] Alice Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan. Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label Free-Approach. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 31.