What is music therapy and what can it do for the special child? Dr. Indra V. Selvarajah, a medical music therapist, and head of the Fusion Lab (Music in Special Education Division) of University Putra Malaysia (UPM) Department of Music explains.

The world is a scary and confusing place to a special child. Seemingly random, chaotic experiences accompanied by the constant bombardment of environmental stimuli can oftentimes threaten to over stimulate and overload his or her senses. As the child strives to make sense of his or her surroundings and learns to express himself or herself in socially appropriate ways, the special child struggles to process and understand his or her “world”, a world he or she cannot fully fathom let alone control. This causes him or her to feel frustrated, anxious and fearful. In the midst of such chaos, music therapy can introduce safety, structure and control into the special child’s world.


An Allied Health Profession


img57Music therapy is an allied health profession equivalent to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. It is a clinical and evidence-based form of treatment which uses music based interventions to stimulate, support and rehabilitate human functioning. This includes cognitive functioning, physical functioning, psychological and emotional functioning, as well as various forms of developmental delays, speech impairments, emotional disorders and behavioural problems.

Music therapy offers the special child a familiar and supportive platform from which to encounter fresh sensations and explore new opportunities for learning, all of which have been thoughtfully structured and musically presented. The special child may have limited opportunities to express personal preferences and exert control over his or her environment in his or her daily experiences, often due to legitimate concerns over safety and the child’s limited abilities to communicate. Here, music therapists can create an atmosphere that is fun-filled and conducive for learning where the special child is being meaningfully engaged in self-discovery and hands-on musical exploration. The special child is also enabled to learn at his or her own pace.

At the heart of every music therapy experience is the therapist’s sincere desire to discover what interests and engages the client as well as what motivates and accelerates his or her learning. Within the context of the special child, music therapists are trained to tailor make musical experiences that support the child’s interests and abilities, stimulate his or her senses and invite curiosity, while gently coaxing the child to step out of his or her shell. In the process of losing his or her inhibition, the special child is naturally drawn in to explore further and probe deeper into the new learning that is being presented.


A Child-Centred Approach


img39Each special child is also gifted with a unique set of abilities and heightened sensitivities that are often amenable to musical shaping and structuring. Music therapists are trained to observe and better understand the child in order to discern his or her latent potential. More than that, music therapists are equipped to capitalise on moments of musical breakthrough in order to catalyse learning in all major aspects of functioning be it providing schoolwork and academic support, physical entrainment, social skills enhancement, emotional regulation, or teaching communication and coping skills - all of which are essential to set the special child up for success in later life.

Music therapy is also very- child centered and seeks to build the special child’s confidence in his or her abilities to learn, strengthen his or her desire to engage with the outside world, and to instill a strong sense of identity and self-worth. The special child is not a mistake or an anomaly of nature, but a unique gift to this world – it is the music therapist’s job to help the special child find his or her place in this world and to discover what makes him or her truly “special”.


The Benefits of Music Therapy


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Beyond what is ideal, it is also important to be cognizant of the realities and to state the facts of the matter. Parents and educators should not shy back. Instead they need to ask bold questions and demand clear answers as the interests of vulnerable special children are at stake. Hence what are the known effects of music therapy on special children? Does exposure to music therapy benefit the special child in real and tangible ways? What are the evidences for any kind of improvement, if at all present?

The extant research presents a strong and compelling case in favour of using music in special education. What follows is a brief research snapshot on the known benefits of music therapy in special education. Among its key findings:

Music therapy

  • provides children with a safe and non-threatening platform for learning, self-discovery, exploration of new knowledge, and self-expression;
  • is highly motivating, engaging, and enjoyable;
  •  focuses on children’s strengths and abilities rather than weaknesses;
  • creates a safe outlet for expressing frustration and stress release;
  • builds verbal, speech and communication skills;
  • develops self-confidence and self-esteem;
  • encourages coping, resilience and perseverance;
  • captures attention while developing focus and concentration;
  • teaches socially appropriate behaviors;
  • increases participation in social settings;
  • promotes social skills beyond the therapy context;
  • facilitates inclusion;
  • extends tolerance for sensory stimulation;
  • reinforces self-regulation and impulse control;
  • builds trust and nurtures bonding between parent and child/teacher and child/siblings;
  • distracts from pain during movement therapies;
  Music therapy is often integrated with speech, physical, occupational, art and play therapies to enhance achievement of treatment outcomes.

Find a Music Therapist in Malaysia 


It is important for parents and school educators to enlist ONLY professionally trained and qualified music therapists when seeking help for vulnerable special children. To locate a board certified music therapist in Malaysia and to obtain further information about locally available music therapy resources, please check out our Facebook page www.facebook. com/MusicTherapyMalaysia where you will be instantly connected  to qualified music therapists or email Dr. Indra V. Selvarajah at <malaysianmta@gmail.com> for further enquiries.


About the author


Dr. Indra V. Selvarajah has a PhD in Medical Music Therapy from Florida State University, and is currently the head of the UPM Fusion Lab (Music in Special Education Division). She was also the head of the UPM Music Cares "Music Therapy & Autism Seminar" which was held in May 2015. She will also be heading the UPM-HELP University Conference "Music Therapy as a Catalyst for Nation Building and Community Growth" in August 2016. Dr Indra is also the President of the newly formed Malaysian Music Therapy Association (MMTA).