Quiet Voices and Calm Bodies: Music and Relaxation for Children with Autism

4 Nov

Whether you’re a therapist, teacher or parent, I have a feeling that you’ve experienced a day when your students are bouncing off the walls at least once in your career. For those working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, this may be a more frequent occurrence. I know I’ve even had sessions during which my clients shake, dance and drum their wiggles out many different ways without ever showing signs of calming down! I’ve found that sometimes what my clients really need is the opportunity to learn about and practice what it means to relax through therapist modeling, listening and tangible visual aids.

I’ve learned to think of music and relaxation for children with ASD as a highly concrete, experiential and organized process. I tend to use music and relaxation with this population in two different ways, depending on client needs:

  1. Entrainment with a rhythmic beat
  2. Introducing an instrument experience

Rhythm and Relaxation

Pairing a strong rhythmic beat with concrete visual aids may provide clients with ASD the tools necessary to work on self-regulating independently. When using this technique, I prefer recorded instrumental or live music (I usually use the guitar or a percussion instrument) that has a strong rhythmic beat between 70-90 beats per minute. Though traditional relaxation and meditation music may be highly successful for many populations, it may lack the sense of direction and concrete rhythmic organization that can be so helpful for individuals with ASD.

Relaxation doesn’t always have to mean sitting still; in fact, I frequently lead my groups in quiet knee patting, marching or scarf waving to help them internalize the pulse and get those wiggles out. Once everyone is moving together and feeling the beat, you might begin to notice the room growing quieter as your students focus on you and the music. Be on the look out for signs of relaxation and self-regulation demonstrated by your clients, which will vary based on individual needs and goals. While I might expect some clients to fully engage in all therapist-directed movements and breathing, other clients might instead be working on increasing their visual attention and in-seat behavior. The great thing about structured relaxation is that it can be easily adapted for a range of functioning levels and ages.

Instrument Experiences and Relaxation

P1020541Another highly successful music and relaxation activity for this population is introducing clients to a sensory instrument. I like to put on some recorded music that features one instrument so it isn’t overly distracting (usually either guitar or piano) and select one sensory instrument to use for the activity. Feel free to let client instrument preference guide your selection! To implement this activity, I walk around to each client and give them the opportunity to quietly play the instrument with me.

Suggested instruments and uses:

  • Cabasa:  Ask clients to hold out their hands and slowly roll the cabasa over their hands and arms
  • Guiro: Introduce as a bird or insect sound
  • Stir xylophone: Introduce as raindrops or water droplets
  • Thunder tube: Pair with rain stick or recording of ambient rain sounds

Keeping all of this in mind, I’d like to share a music and relaxation activity that I created that draws on both of the above techniques.

Guided Fall Walk with Drums


  • One large tubano, gathering drum or djembe
  • “Fall Walk Map” or a preferred visual aid

Picture 2I display the fall relax map, dim the lights and tell my clients that we are about to go on a calm, slow fall walk together. I begin playing a steady beat on the tubano and ask clients to quietly march in their seats (alternating feet if able) along with the beat. Once clients begin to match the beat, I improvise simple phrases and movements that match the images on the map. Each time we are “walking,” I play the beat on the tubano. Below is a basic script you might use for this activity and some suggested motions to compliment each line.

Sample script Sample motion
“We’re slowly walking through the pumpkin patch.” Soft marching in seats
Look! An apple tree. Let’s reach up and pick an apple off the tree.” Stop marching. Stretch both arms up and mime picking an apple. Repeat 2-3xs.
“Let’s continue our fall walk.” Marching in seats
“The fall wind starts to blow.” Stop marching. Model deep breath and blow out. Repeat 2-3xs. 
“The wind has blown some fall leaves off the trees. Let’s reach out and make a leaf pile.” Stretch arms out in front of you and model pulling leaves in toward your lap. Repeat 2-3xs.
“We walk a little more and find ourselves back in the pumpkin patch. What a fun fall walk!” Marching in seats

Helpful hints:

  • Prompting is key. I often introduce a relaxation exercise by saying, “When we are relaxing, our voices are quiet and our bodies are calm.” This can even be used as a mantra throughout the relaxation when spoken along with the pulse. Sometimes, clients need a reminder of what relaxation looks and feels like.
  • Use visual aids to enhance your activity.  I try to select an image to pair with the relaxation that can either be projected on the board or that I can take to each student individually to provide concrete visual support.
  • Keep some relaxation materials on hand at all times! You never know when you might need to pull it out during a session.

These are just some ideas to get you thinking about music and relaxation—I hope you can take this activity and run with it in your sessions and classes. I’d love to hear about how you use music to promote relaxation for children with ASD!

Fall Relax Images

One Response to “Quiet Voices and Calm Bodies: Music and Relaxation for Children with Autism”

  1. Anonymous May 7, 2014 at 4:13 am #

    Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe that
    this amazing site needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!

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