Music enhances social communication in autistic children

Music may be a potential therapeutic aid in autism.

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Music has been identified as a strength in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder; however, there is currently no neuroscientific evidence supporting its benefits. A new study by the Université de Montréal and McGill University suggests that engaging in musical activities such as singing and playing instruments in one-on-one therapy can improve autistic children’s social communication skills. It also improves their family’s quality of life, as well as increase brain connectivity in key networks.

To get a clearer picture, specialists from UdeM’s International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound (BRAMS) and McGill’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) enrolled 51 children with ASD, ages 6 to 12, to take an interest in a clinical trial including three months of a music-based intervention.

To start with, the guardians finished surveys about their child’s social communication skills and their family’s quality of life, and also their child’s symptom severity. The youngsters experienced MRI outputs to build up a pattern of brain activity.

Kids were then arbitrarily allocated to two groups: one including music and the other not. Every session kept going 45 minutes and was directed 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 also engaged in reciprocal play, without any musical activities.

Following the sessions, parents of children in the music group reported significant improvements in their children’s communication 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.

Communication scores were higher in the music group post-intervention. There is also 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.

Megha Sharda, a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal said, “these findings are exciting and hold much promise for autism intervention.”

“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 the irrelevant noise. For people with autism, this can often be a challenge.”

“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. This may be because we do not have a tool sensitive enough to directly measure changes in social interaction behaviors.”

Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill’s SCSD said, “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.”

Krista Hyde, an associate professor of psychology at UdeM said, “Remarkably, our results were observed after only eight to 12 weekly sessions. 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.”

However, this is the first study to demonstrate that music meditation for school-age kids with mental imbalance can prompt enhancements in both correspondence and brain connectivity, and gives a conceivable neuroscientific clarification to upgrades in communication.

The study is published in Translational Psychiatry.