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Music and Autism Research

Music and Autism Research

Music Therapy Autism Research

According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

Music and autism research support the benefits of music as a processing strength and the positive effects music therapy has in the treatment of individuals with autism.  Coast Music Therapy has compiled the latest studies with the most persuasive results and regularly updates this list to reflect the most current research.

Individuals with autism show equal or superior abilities in pitch processing, labeling of emotions in music, and musical preference when compared to typically developing peers. The most compelling evidence supporting the clinical benefits of music therapy lies in the areas of social-emotional responsiveness and communication, including increased compliance, reduced anxiety, increased speech output, decreased vocal stereotypy, receptive labeling, and increased interaction with peers. Preliminary findings also support the potential for music to assist in the learning of daily routines.

Research from the journal “Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience” proposes a rationale for how rhythmic input can improve sensorimotor functioning and overall growth in areas such as cognition, behavior, social skills, and communication. Because movement is critical to many areas of functioning, researchers LaGasse and Hardy hypothesize that the well documented benefits of rhythm in motor rehabilitation could also be effective for individuals with autism.

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2015 Research

“Bill is now singing”: Joint engagement and the emergence of social communication of three young children with autism. 
A child-centered improvisational music therapy intervention model was implemented to promote engagement in three children with autism in a kindergarten classroom.  Using a multiple baseline design, all children showed improvement in joint attention and actions of social engagement.
Autism 2015; 19(1), 73-83.
Vaiouli, P., Grimmet, K., & Ruich, L.J.

2014 Research

Intact brain processing of musical emotions in autism spectrum disorder, but more cognitive load and arousal in happy vs. sad music.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, this study investigated neural correlates of emotion recognition in music in high-functioning adults with ASD and neurotypical adults. Both groups engaged similar neural networks during processing of emotional music, and individuals with ASD rated emotional music comparable to the group of neurotypical individuals. However, in the ASD group, increased activity in response to happy compared to sad music was observed in dorsolateral prefrontal regions and in the rolandic operculum/insula, and we propose that this reflects increased cognitive processing and physiological arousal in response to emotional musical stimuli in this group. Read the entire article for free through PubMed.
Frontiers in Neuroscience 2014; 15(8), 192.
Gebauer, L., Skewes, J., Westphael, G., Heaton, P., & Vuust, P.

Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder.
This review of research examined randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or controlled clinical trials comparing music therapy or music therapy added to standard care to ‘placebo’ therapy, no treatment, or standard care for individuals with ASD. The findings of this review provide evidence that music therapy may help children with ASD to improve their skills in primary outcome areas that constitute the core of the condition including social interaction, verbal communication, initiating behaviour, and social-emotional reciprocity. Music therapy may also help to enhance non-verbal communication skills within the therapy context. Furthermore, in secondary outcome areas, music therapy may contribute to increasing social adaptation skills in children with ASD and to promoting the quality of parent-child relationships.
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014 Jun 17;6:CD004381
Geretsegger, M., Elefant, C., Mossler, K.A., & Gold, C.

Effects of a music therapy group intervention on enhancing social skills in children with autism.
Seventeen children, ages 6 to 9, with a diagnosis of ASD were randomly assigned to the music therapy group (MTG) or the no-music social skills group (SSG). All group sessions were designed to target social skills. The Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC), and video analysis of sessions were used to evaluate changes in social behavior. Statistical results demonstrate initial support for the use of music therapy social groups to develop joint attention.
Journal of Music Therapy 2014; 51(3), 250-75.
LaGasse, A.B.

The effect of musical attention control training (MACT) on attention skills of adolescents with neurodevelopmental delays: a pilot study.
This single group pretest/posttest study included 9 adolescents with neurodevelopmental delays including autism. Researchers assessed feasibility of implementing a 45-min Musical Attention Control Training (MACT) intervention delivered by a board-certified music therapist eight times over 6 weeks in a school setting. The preliminary efficacy of the MACT to improve attention skills using the Test of Everyday Attention for Children (TEA-Ch) was also examined.  Data analysis demonstrated positive trends indicating that more research on the use of music therapy attention training in high-functioning adolescents with neurodevelopmental disabilities/autism is warranted.
Journal of Music Therapy 2014; 51(4), 333-54.
Pasiali, V., LaGasse, A.B., & Penn, S.L.

Fronto-temporal connectivity is preserved during sung but not spoken word listening, across the autism spectrum.
Using a passive-listening functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm with spoken words, sung words and piano tones, we found that 22 children with ASD, with varying levels of functioning, activated bilateral temporal brain networks during sung-word perception, similarly to an age and gender-matched control group. In contrast, spoken-word perception was right-lateralized in ASD and elicited reduced inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) activity which varied as a function of language ability.  Results demonstrate the ability of song to overcome the structural deficit for speech across the autism spectrum and provide a mechanistic basis for efficacy of song-based interventions in ASD.
Autism Research 2014 Nov [ePub ahead of print] Sharda, M., Midha, R., Malik, S., Mukerji, S., & Singh, N.C.

2013 Research

Rhythm, movement, and autism: using rhythmic rehabilitation research as a model for autism.
The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the potential impact of auditory rhythmic cueing for motor functioning in individuals with autism and proposes a rationale for how rhythmic input can support cognitive, behavioral, social, and communication outcomes.  Read the entire article for free through PubMed.
Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 2013; 7:19.
Hardy, M., LaGasse, B.

A review of “music and movement” therapies for children with autism: embodied interventions for multisystem development.
This article explains why music and movement therapies are a powerful clinical tool and reviews the results from brain imaging studies reporting on music therapy effects with autism.  Read the entire article for free through PubMed.
Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 2013; 7:22.
Srinivasan, S., Bhat, A.

Family-centred music therapy to promote social engagement in young children with severe autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled study.
In this study, 23 children with autism between the ages of 36 and 60 months either received 16 weeks of parent-child music therapy in addition to their early intervention program, or their early intervention program without the addition of music therapy. Results utilizing the Vineland Social Emotional Early Childhood Scale indicated a significant effect on social interaction and the parent-child relationship in the group receiving music therapy.
Child: Care, Health and Development; Nov 2013 ePub ahead of print
Thompson, G.A., McFerran, K.S., & Gold. C.

2012 Research

Is talent in autism spectrum disorders associated with a specific cognitive and behavioural phenotype?
Parents of 125 youth and young adults with autism were surveyed. Special skills such as in music, art, and mathematics were associated with individuals who had superior working memory and highly focused attention that was not associated with increased obsessesionality.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2012; 42(12), 2739-53
Bennett, E., Heaton, P.

Pilot study investigating the efficacy of tempo-specific rhythm interventions in music-based treatment addressing hyper-arousal, anxiety, system pacing, and redirection of fight-or-flight fear behaviors in children with autism spectrum disorder.
This eight week pilot study with six children with ASD employed rhythm interventions at 60-beats per minute and tracked heart-rate data for participants. Results suggest that highly structured rhythmic interventions at a slow tempo were effective in providing ‘controlled arousal’ levels.
Journal of Biomusical Engineering 2012; 2(1-15)
Berger, D.

An embodied approach to testing musical empathy in participants with an autism spectrum disorder.
Results suggest that people with ASD have an understanding of the affective features of music although this physical understanding does not give them clear access to the emotional content of the music.
Music and Medicine 2012; 4(1), 28-36
De Bruyn, L., Moelants, D., Leman, M.

Positive outcomes following participation in a music intervention for adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum.
Pre- and post-outcome measures for a pilot music program geared to students with ASD showed a significant increase in self-esteem, reduced self-reported anxiety, and more positive attitudes towards peers.
Psychology of Music 2012; 40(2), 201-15
Hillier, A., Greher, G., Poto, N., Dougherty, M.

Joint attention responses of children with autism spectrum disorder to simple versus complex music.
Music that is simple with clear and predictable patterns was found most effective in eliciting responses to bids for joint attention in children with autism in the severe range of functioning. On the contrary, more complex and variable music was most effective with children in the mild/moderate range.
Journal of Music Therapy 2012; 49(4), 430-52.
Kalas, A.

Neural systems for speech and song in autism.
Findings indicate that in low functioning individuals with autism, functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than for speech and neural pathways associated with these functions were not distinguishable from controls.
Brain 2012; 135(Pt 3), 961-75
Lai, G., Pantazatos, S., Schneider, H., Hirsch, J.

The utility of assessing musical preference before implementation of noncontingent music to reduce vocal stereotypy.
This study emphasizes the potential importance of assessing musical preference prior to using music in the reduction of vocal stereotypy. Results found that music was effective to reduce stereotypy compared to a no-interaction condition and high-preference music was most successful. Read the entire article for free through PubMed.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2012; 45(4), 845-51.
Lanovaz, M., Rapp, J., Ferguson, S.

Music: a unique window into the world of autism.
Despite difficulties in the areas of socialization and communication, there is evidence to suggest many individuals with ASD show a strong and early preference for music and are able to understand simple and complex musical emotions.  New brain studies in the area of musical abilities with ASD is also reviewed.
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2012; 1252, 318-24
Molnar-Szakacs, I., Heaton, P.

Effects of three types of noncontingent auditory stimulation on vocal stereotypy in children with autism.
Music, white noise, and recordings of vocal stereotypy were utilized on two children with autism who showed high rates of vocal stereotypy. For both participants, the music condition was most effective to reduce vocal stereotypy to near-zero levels and also resulted in the highest parent social validity rating and was selected as most preferred of the treatments.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2012; 45(1), 185-90
Saylor, S., Sidener, T., Reeve, S., Fetherston, A., Progar, P.

Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorder.
Compared to age and IQ-matched typically developing children, participants with autism demonstrated elevated pitch discrimination ability as well as superior long-term memory for melody.
Autism- Nov 13 [Epub ahead of print] Stanutz, S., Wapnick, J., Burack, J.

2011 Research

Functional and dysfunctional brain circuits underlying emotional processing of music in autism spectrum disorders.
Individuals with ASD and neurotypical controls underwent an fMRI study while processing happy and sad music excerpts. Individuals with ASD did show activated regions known to be involved in emotion processing and reward but showed decreased brain activity in specific areas compared to the control group.
Cerebral Cortex 2011; 21(12), 2838-49
Caria, A., Venuti, P., de Falco, S

The effect of a music therapy social skills training program on improving social competence in children and adolescents with social skills deficits.
A total of 45 children aged 6-17 with social skills deficits including autism participated in a group-based five session intervention program involving music therapy. Results indicated that significant improvements in social functioning were found in pre and post test ratings and behavioral observations.
Journal of Music Therapy 2011; 48(4), 440-62
Gooding, L.

Effects of music on vocal stereotypy in children with autism.
Noncontingent access to music decreased immediate engagement in vocal stereotypy for 2 children with autism, but only produced marginal effects on subsequent engagement in the behavior after withdrawal.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2011; 44(3), 647-651
Lanovaz, M., Sladeczek, I., Rapp, J.

The use of auditory prompting systems for increasing independent performance of students with autism in employment training.
Self-operated tape recordings of music interspersed with prompts related to job self-evaluation and encouragement were utilized for two students with autism in an employment training program. Results indicated a potential positive relationship between the use of this auditory prompting system and the on-task behavior of the participants as well as a positive relationship between the decreased amounts of prompts used by support staff.
International Journal of Rehabilitation Research 2011; 34(4), 330-5
Montgomery, J., Storey, K., Post, M., Lemley, J.

Emotion perception in music in high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.
Adolescents with ASD rate the intensity of musical emotions similarly to typically-developing individuals and reported greater confidence in their responses when they had correctly recognized the emotions.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2011; 41(9), 1240-55
Quintin, E., Bhatara, A., Poissant, H., Fombonne, E., Levitin, D.

History of music therapy treatment interventions for children with autism.
This paper provides a systematic review of the history of music therapy research, treatment of children with autism, and reviews strengths and limitations of music therapy practice with children with autism from 1940-2009.
Journal of Music Therapy 2011; 48(2),169-207
Reschke-Hernandez, A.E.

Music interventions for children with autism: narrative review of the literature.
There is preliminary evidence that children with autism may benefit from music interventions within naturalistic settings and further investigation into these types of interventions and the training required to implement them is required.  While it appears that some individuals with autism may respond to elements of music, more research is needed to support the efficacy of specific applications of music stimuli.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2011; 41(11). 1507-1514
Simpson, K., Keen, D.

Auditory-motor mapping training (AMMT) as an intervention to facilitate speech output in non-verbal children with autism: a proof of concept study.
AMMT aims to promote speech production directly by trainings the association between sounds and articulatory actions using intonation and bimanual motor activities, capitalizing on the inherent musical strengths of children with autism. Six non-verbal children with autism had no intelligible words prior to treatment. After 40 individual sessions of AAMT over eight weeks, all children showed significant improvements in their ability to articulate words and phrases with generalization to items that were not practiced during therapy sessions. Read the entire article for free through PubMed.
PLoS One 2011; 6(9), e25505
Wan, C., Bazen, L., Baars, R., Libenson, A., Zipse, L., Zuk, J., Norton, A., Schlaug, G.

2010 Research

Increased dopamine DRD4 receptor mRNA expression in lymphocytes of musicians and autistic individuals: bridging the music-autism connection.
Results provide preliminary evidence for a molecular link between dopamine DRD4 receptor, music and autism, possibly via mechanisms involving the reward system and the appraisal of emotions.
Neuro Endocrinology Letters 2010; 31(1), 122-5
Emanuele, E., Boso, M., Cassola, F., Broglia, D., Bonoldi, I., Mancini. L., Marini, M., Politi, P.

Increasing social responsiveness in a child with autism. A comparison of music and non-music interventions.
A single-subject alternating treatment design was utilized over 12 treatment sessions. Results indicated that the music intervention was more effective than the non-music intervention in increasing social responsiveness and no avoidant behaviors were observed during the music condition. It is suggested that the music condition was more motivating for the participant, resulting in more appropriate behaviors.
Autism 2010; 14(4), 321-48
Finnigan, E., Starr, E.

Use of music in the applied behavior analysis verbal behavior approach for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Pairing target verbal behavior with musical experiences establishes effective automatic reinforcement and can increase the frequency of communicative behaviors and social interactions in children with autism.
Music Therapy Perspectives 2010; 28 95-105
Lim, A. H.

Effect of “developmental speech and language training through music” on speech production in children with autism spectrum disorders.
Music training is as effective as speech training for improving acquisition of functional vocabulary words and speech production in children with ASD; low functioning participants in particular showed a greater improvement after the music training compared with speech training.
Journal of Music Therapy 2010; 47(1), 2-26
Lim, A. H.

Teaching young children with autism graphic symbols embedded within an interactive song.
Three boys with ASD participated in a single subject multiple baseline design study and were taught to receptively label animal symbols. The use of the interactive song facilitated the receptive labeling task for all participants. Results were also maintained at follow-up although there was little generalization to other contexts.
Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities 2010; 22(2), 165-77
Simpson, K., Keen, D.

Neural pathways for language in autism: the potential for music-based treatments.
This article proposes that music-based interventions would take advantage of the musical strengths in children with ASD and may fortify and engage neural connections.  Such treatments have important clinical potential in facilitating expressive language in nonverbal children with autism.
Future Neurology 2010; 5(6), 797-805
Wan, C., Schlaug, G.

2009 Research

Exploring musical taste in severely autistic subjects: preliminary data.
Individuals with severe autism share the same musical preferences as typically developing individuals despite their challenges.
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009; 1169, 332-5
Boso, M., Comelli, M., Vecchi, T., Barale, F., Politi, P.

Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants.
Data from empirical studies show that many children with autism possess musical potential that can and should be developed. Musically untrained individuals with ASD have revealed a pattern of musical abilities that are either enhanced or spared compared to other areas of functioning.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2009; 364(1522), 1443-7
Heaton, P.

The effect of background music and song texts on the emotional understanding of children with autism.
Twelve students with autism were taught emotions under four conditions including verbal instruction, background music, singing, and a control group. Background music was significantly more effective than the other conditions in improving participant’s emotional understanding.
Journal of Music Therapy 2009; 46(1), 15-31
Katagiri, J.

Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy.
This randomized controlled study of 10 individuals with ASD compared improvisational music therapy to toy play sessions. Music therapy produced increased compliance and markedly more and longer events of ‘joy’, ‘emotional synchronicity’ and ‘initiation of engagement’ behaviors compared to toy play.
Autism 2009; 13(4), 398-409
Kim, J., Wigram, T., Gold, C.

2008 Research

Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: a group and subgroup analysis.
Compared with comparison participants, a subgroup of individuals with autism achieved performance scores in pitch discrimination and pitch memory that were 4-5 standard deviations above the mean for the groups.
Autism 2008; 12(2), 203-19
Heaton, P., Williams, K., Cummins, O., Happe, F.

Effects of vibroacoustic music on challenging behaviors in individuals with autism and developmental disabilities.
Results revealed that vibroacoustic music reduced self-injurious, stereotypic, and aggressive destructive behaviors in individuals with ASD and developmental disabilities.
Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 2008; 3, 390-400
Lundqvist, L., Andersson, G., Viding, J.

Spontaneous imitation by children with autism during a repetitive musical play routine. 
Children demonstrated repeatedly that they shared joint attention on imitation behaviors with the researcher within the musical play routine and that they chose to participate in reciprocal imitation within that routine; this suggests that establishing a child-led musical milieu for children with autism might be a productive area for further research.
Autism 2008; 12(6), 645-671
Stephens, C. E.

2007 Research

Effect of long-term interactive music therapy on behavior profile and musical skills in young adults with severe autism.
Eight young adults with ASD took part in 52 weekly active music therapy sessions. At the end, significant improvements were found on both the Clinical Global Impression scale and Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale, in addition to showing improved musical skills.
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2007; 13(7), 709-12
Boso, M., Emanuele, E., Minazzi, V., Abbamonte, M., Politi, P.

Improving the performance of a young child with autism during self-care tasks using embedded song interventions: A case study.  
Songs can be an effective approach to multiple-step tasks for children with autism within inclusive classrooms; song was more effective than lyric/spoken intervention for hand-washing and cleaning up while lyrics/spoken words worked better for toileting.
Music Therapy Perspectives 2007; 25(1), 43-51
Kern, P., Wakeford, L., Aldridge, D.

Use of songs to promote independence in morning greeting routines for young children with autism. 
Using a single subject withdrawal design, results indicated songs, with modifications for 1 of the 2 children, assisted them in entering the classroom, greeting the teachers and/or peers and engaging in play.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2007; 37(7), 1264-1271
Kern, P., Wolery, M., Aldridge, D.

The use of music therapy within the SCERTS model for children with autism spectrum disorder. 
This paper identifies how music therapists are currently providing clinical services incorporated in the SCERTS model and offers an alignment of music therapy strategies with SCERTS goals and objectives.
Journal of Music Therapy 2007; 44(1), 2-22
Walworth, D.

2006 Research

Using embedded music therapy interventions to support outdoor play of young children with autism in an inclusive community-based child care program. 
Using a multiple baseline design replicated across 4 boys, results indicated that embedded music therapy interventions can improve children’s peer interaction on community-based inclusive playgrounds.
Journal of Music Therapy 2006; 43(4), 270-294
Kern, P., Aldridge, D.

Music therapy in the assessment and treatment of autistic spectrum disorder: Clinical application and research evidence.
This article includes review of two randomized controlled trials which found significant effects from structured music therapy intervention.
Child: Care, Health and Development 2006; 32(5), 535-542
Wigram, T., Gold, C.

2005 Research

Parents’ perception of family-based group music therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders.
Parents responded positively to a 7-week family-based group music therapy intervention and articulated new insights about themselves and their children.
Music Therapy Perspectives 2005; 23(2), 92-99
Allgood, N.

An analysis of music therapy program goals and outcomes for clients with diagnoses on the autism spectrum.
Researchers analyzed data related to goals and outcomes over 2 program years for 40 clients with ASD. Results indicate positive findings in level of progress over time and generalization as reported via survey by parents and caregivers.
Journal of Music Therapy 2005; 42(1), 2-19
Kaplan, R.S., Steele, A.L.

2004 Research

Music in intervention for children and adolescents with autism: Meta-analysis.
The effects of 9 quantitative studies were in a positive direction, indicating benefits of the use of music in intervention.
Journal of Music Therapy 2004; 41(2), 90-106
Whipple, J.

2003 Research

Enhanced pitch sensitivity in individuals with autism: A signal detection analysis.
Pitch processing is enhanced in “high-functioning” autism for discrimination and categorization compared to a control group.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2003; 15(2), 226-35
Bonnel, A., Mottron, L., Peretz, I., Trudel, M., Gallun, E., Bonnel, AM.

Autism-related language, personality, and cognition in people with absolute pitch: Results of a preliminary study.
This study speculates that the genes that underlie absolute pitch may be among the genes that contribute to autism.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2003; 33(2), 163-7
Brown, W.A., Cammuso, K., Sachs, H., Winklosky, B., Mullane, J., Bernier, R., Svenson, S., Arin, D., Rosen-Sheidley, B., Folstein, S.E.

Speech-sound-selective auditory impairment in children with autism: They can perceive but do not attend.
Sensory sound processing, including pitch discrimination, was largely intact in high-functioning children with autism, regardless of the acoustic sound complexity.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2003; 100(9), 5567-72
Ceponiene, R., Lepisto, T., Shestakova, A., Vanhala, R., Alku, P., Naatanen, R., Yaguchi, K.

Pitch memory, labeling and disembedding in autism.
Pitch memory and labeling is superior in autism and can facilitate performance on musical disembedding tasks.
Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 2003; 44(4), 543-51
Heaton, P.

2002 Research

Musically adapted social stories to modify behaviors in students with autism: Four case studies. 
The use of musical-social stories was equally effective to reading of social stories in 3 of 4 cases, and significantly more effective in one of the cases.
Journal of Music Therapy 2002; 39(2), 117-144
Brownell, M.