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Music: Improving music therapy for autistic children and their families by developing and embedding an innovative interactive approach

Prof Amelia Oldfield, Prof Helen Odell-Miller

ARU research on music therapy with autistic children and their families had an impact on the families receiving treatment, the music therapists providing the treatment, and the training of music therapists.

Prof Oldfield has developed a specific interactive approach at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research (CIMTR), which she has gone on to teach to more than 500 music therapists around the world.

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Prof Oldfield developed her practices of music therapy with families and music therapy with autistic children simultaneously.

Before 2001, it was uncommon for music therapists to work with children with their families in the room. When Prof Oldfield faced a clinical dilemma of a two-year-old autistic boy who refused to enter the room without his mother, she elected to work with both of them. This was so successful that it led her to develop a new music therapy approach through research.

Prof Oldfield’s novel approach is characterised by eight specific points:

  1. The importance of using music to motivate children to be engaged.
  2. Providing clear structures within the music making.
  3. The therapist alternating between following and initiating.
  4. Using improvised music making as basic forms of communicative exchanges.
  5. Being aware of issues of control in musical improvisations.
  6. Combining music with movement.
  7. Incorporating play and drama.
  8. Working in partnership with parents in the room.

Prof Oldfield found that autistic children who took part in music therapy sessions alongside their parents were quicker to transfer their progress in the sessions to other settings.

She also found that mainly non-verbal musical exchanges helped parents to rediscover the fun of playing with their child and regain confidence in their parenting skills.

Prof Oldfield has further developed her approach by demonstrating the benefits of supporting families in small group settings and using video feedback from music therapy sessions to evaluate the work with parents.

She has also developed music therapy diagnostic assessments (MTDAs), which can be used alongside the psychiatric diagnostic process for autism, and researched how parent counselling can be used alongside music therapy to help parents of autistic children.

Children's hands using beaters on xylophones

Summary of the impact

  • Used new approach to music therapy in NHS work with more than 160 families
  • Trained more than 500 music therapists around the world in new approach
  • Created five new music therapy posts in Cambridge and Peterborough
  • Carried out music therapy diagnostic assessments (MTDAs) on more than 120 children
  • Raised clinical and public awareness of the benefits of music therapy for autistic children through award-winning documentary film


Between August 2013 and 2019, Prof Oldfield and three music therapy colleagues (trained and supervised by Prof Oldfield) successfully used her approach in NHS work with more than 160 families.

Between August 2013 and 2017, Prof Oldfield carried out MTDAs on approximately 120 children at the Croft Child and Family Unit in Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), and her successor continues to carry them out.

The work of ARU Research Assistants using Prof Oldfield’s clinical approach led to the creation of five new music therapy posts in Cambridge and Peterborough in 2017 and 2018, enabling more families to benefit from treatment.

Between August 2013 and 2019, around 105 MA Music Therapy students learned Prof Oldfield’s approach at ARU.

Prof Oldfield has also taught her approach in France, Germany, Singapore, Poland, Spain, Italy, Taiwan, Thailand, Canada and Finland.

Between 30 July 2014 and 15 December 2020, Prof Oldfield’s music therapy training DVD, produced at ARU, was viewed on YouTube 93,916 times.

Between August 2013 and 2020, Prof Oldfield remotely supported her Thai colleague to develop her music therapy practice with autistic children and their families, and to teach students on this subject.

As a result, Khon Kaen University (Thailand) has set up their first MA music therapy training course. This is due to start in 2022, having been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2017, Oldfield interviewed the families of the autistic children who received music therapy between 2000 and 2002, creating a full-length documentary film, Operation Syncopation. The film director was a patient who received treatment from Oldfield as a child.

The film received the Silver Punt Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2017 Cambridge Film Festival and, in 2018 and 2019, was shown at six international music therapy conferences, and cinemas in Montpellier and Katowice.

In 2019, 109 viewers in Italy, Slovenia, Denmark and Spain evaluated the film:

  • 90% indicated that they would change the way they worked with autistic children.
  • 70% wrote that their view of autism had changed.
  • 92% said they would recommend the film to others.

Between 6 September 2019 and 15 December 2020, the film was viewed on YouTube 4,847 times.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, target 3.4.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 33: Improving music therapy for children with autism and their families by developing and embedding an innovative interactive approach (PDF)

The original REF impact case study, which is available to download as a PDF above, uses the term 'children with autism'. We have changed it to 'autistic children' on this webpage.

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