Music improves social communication in autistic children

November 5, 2018, University of Montreal
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Engaging in musical activities such as singing and playing instruments in one-on-one therapy can improve autistic children's social communication skills, improve their family's quality of life, as well as increase brain connectivity in key networks, according to researchers at Université de Montréal and McGill University.

The link between (ASD) and music dates back to the first description of autism, more than 70 years ago, when almost half of those with the disorder were said to possess "perfect pitch." Since then, there have been many anecdotes about the profound impact music can have on individuals with ASD, yet little strong evidence of its therapeutic benefits.

To get a clearer picture, researchers from UdeM's International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound (BRAMS) and McGill's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) enlisted 51 with ASD, ages 6 to 12, to participate in a clinical trial involving three months of a music-based intervention.

First, the parents completed questionnaires about their child's and their family's quality of life, as well as their child's symptom severity. The children underwent MRI scans to establish a baseline of brain activity.

Children were then randomly assigned to two groups: one involving music and the other not. Each session lasted 45 minutes and was conducted at Westmount Music Therapy.

In the music group, the kids sang and played different musical instruments, working with a therapist to engage in a reciprocal interaction. The worked with the same therapist and also engaged in reciprocal play, without any musical activities.

Improved communication, brain connectivity

Following the sessions, parents of children in the music group reported significant improvements in their children's skills and family quality life, beyond those reported for the control group. Parents of children in both groups did not report reductions in autism severity.

"These findings are exciting and hold much promise for autism intervention," said Megha Sharda, a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal and lead author of the new research, published in Translational Psychiatry.

Data collected from the MRI scans suggest that improved communications skills in children who underwent the could be a result of increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain, and decreased connectivity between auditory and visual regions, which are commonly observed to be over-connected in people with autism.

Sharda explains that optimal connectivity between these regions is crucial for integrating sensory stimuli in our environment and are essential for social interaction. For example, when we are communicating with another person, we need to pay attention to what they are saying, plan ahead to know when it is our turn to speak and ignore irrelevant noise. For people with autism, this can often be a challenge.

This is the first clinical trial to show that music intervention for school-age children with autism can lead to improvements in both communication and , and provides a possible neuroscientific explanation for improvements in communication.

"The universal appeal of music makes it globally applicable and can be implemented with relatively few resources on a large scale in multiple settings such as home and school," said Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill's SCSD and co-senior author of the study with Krista Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at UdeM.

"Remarkably, our results were observed after only eight to 12 weekly sessions," said Hyde. "We'll need to replicate these results with multiple therapists with different degrees of training to evaluate whether the effects persist in larger, real-world settings," she said.

"Importantly, our study, as well as a recent large-scale clinical trial on intervention, did not find changes with respect to symptoms themselves," Sharda added. "This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviors."The team is currently developing tools to assess if the improvements in communications skills can also be observed through direct observation of the interaction between child and therapist.

Explore further: Music therapy for children with autism does not improve symptoms

More information: Megha Sharda et al. Music improves social communication and auditory–motor connectivity in children with autism, Translational Psychiatry (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41398-018-0287-3

Related Stories

Music therapy for children with autism does not improve symptoms

August 8, 2017
Among children with autism spectrum disorder, improvisational music therapy resulted in no significant difference in symptom severity compared to children who received enhanced standard care alone, according to a study published ...

Study helps children hit the right note in supporting autistic peers

August 28, 2018
Collaborative music lessons in schools improve the attitudes of pupils towards their peers with autism, a new study in the journal Autism reports.

Relational factors in music therapy can contribute to positive outcome for children with autism

November 6, 2017
It might not surprise that good relationships create good outcomes, as meaningful relational experiences are crucial to all of us in our everyday life. However, the development of a relationship with a child with autism may ...

Mu­sic play­school en­hances chil­dren's lin­guistic skills

June 12, 2018
According to the research conducted at the University of Helsinki, weekly music playschool significantly improved the development of children's vocabulary skills. Several studies have suggested that intensive musical training ...

Research shows new therapy helps nonverbal children with autism to say first words

November 11, 2011
A new treatment can help nonverbal children with autism to develop speech, according to a proof-of-concept study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).

Link found between neurotransmitter imbalance, brain connectivity in those with autism

June 6, 2018
One in 59 children in the United States lives with a form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The signs of autism begin in early childhood and can affect individuals differently. ...

Recommended for you

When your brain won't hang up: Sustained connections associated with symptoms of autism

November 16, 2018
For decades, scientists have examined how regions of the brain communicate to understand autism. Researchers at University of Utah Health believe the symptoms of autism may result from sustained connections between regions ...

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.