Studying the impact of music on children with autism

Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity and member of the Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance, and colleagues have developed a music education programme designed to help children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) better understand emotions and learn to recognise emotions in others. The work is taking place not in a lab but in the child's classroom at the Help Group's Village Glen School for children with autism.

Specifically, the children are using a method developed by the 20th-century German composer Carl Orff which is based on things that children intuitively like to do, such as sing, chant rhymes, clap, dance and keep a beat or play a rhythm on anything near at hand. Orff called this music and movement activity ‘elemental’ – basic, unsophisticated and concerned with the fundamental building blocks of music.

The 12-week program uses elements from the Orff method, including games, instruments and teamwork, and combines them with musical games. The idea is to pair emotional musical excerpts with matching displays of social emotion (happy with happy, sad with sad, etc) in a social, interactive setting. The purpose of this work is to provide a means for awakening the potential in every child for being 'musical' – that is, to be able to understand and use music and movement as forms of expression and, through that, to develop a recognition and understanding of emotions.

The researchers believe that participating in musical activities has the potential to scaffold and
enhance all other learning and development, from timing and language to social skills. The goal of the research is to evaluate the effect of the music education programme on outcomes in social communication and emotional functioning, as well as the children's musical development. The researchers hope that ‘it will also be a fun, engaging and cost-effective therapeutic intervention to help children with ASD recognise and understand emotions in daily life interactions and thereby to form more meaningful social relationships and hopefully greatly improve their quality of life’.

For a fuller report

Click here for more research reports on possible treatments for autism


First Published in November 2009

Top of page