May 25, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team
In This Article
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.
Improved communication skills may be linked to increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain, researchers find.
What is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behaviour. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.
Autism spectrum disorder includes conditions that were previously considered separate — autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and an unspecified form of pervasive developmental disorder. Some people still use the term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which is generally thought to be at the mild end of autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder begins in early childhood and eventually causes problems functioning in society — socially, in school, and at work, for example. Often children show symptoms of autism within the first year. A small number of children appear to develop normally in the first year and then go through a period of regression between 18 and 24 months of age when they develop autism symptoms.
While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, intensive, early treatment can make a big difference in the lives of many children.
What is the link between autism spectrum disorder and music?
The link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and music dates 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 children 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 social communication skills 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.
Music acts as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief—but music can also be utilized as a regulating or calming agent for anxiety or for dysregulation.
The music therapy
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 control group worked with the same therapist and engaged in reciprocal play, without any musical activities.
Increased communication skills because of music therapy
Beyond what was found for the control group, parents of children in the music group reported significant increases in their children’s communication abilities and family quality of life after the sessions. Parents of kids in either group did not report less severe autistic symptoms.
“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.
Increased connectivity between auditory and motor regions of the brain
Increased connectivity between the auditory and motor regions of the brain and decreased connectivity between the auditory and visual regions of the brain, which are typically observed to be over-connected in people with autism, maybe the cause of the improved communication skills in children who underwent the music intervention.
The integration of environmental sensory stimuli and social interaction depends on these regions’ proper connection, according to Sharda. For instance, when speaking with another person, we must listen carefully, prepare ahead of time to know when it is our turn to speak and block out unnecessary background noise. This can be difficult for those who have autism quite frequently.
Music intervention improves brain connectivity
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 brain connectivity 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 music intervention, did not find changes with respect to autism symptoms themselves,” Sharda added. “This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviours.” 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 the child and therapist.
Materials provided by the University of Montreal. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Megha Sharda, Carola Tuerk, Rakhee Chowdhury, Kevin Jamey, Nicholas Foster, Melanie Custo-Blanch, Melissa Tan, Aparna Nadig, Krista Hyde. Music improves social communication and auditory–motor connectivity in children with autism. Translational Psychiatry, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41398-018-0287-3
University of Montreal. “Music improves social communication in autistic children.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 November 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181105081708.htm>.