Advances in music-based interventions for autistic children

ACAR member Aparna Nadig and colleagues determine the "active ingredients" in music-based interventions that produce positive outcomes in autism

Music-based interventions are helpful in improving social communication and motor skills.

In a recently published article in NeuroRehabilitation, ACAR member Aparna Nadig and her colleagues in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University and the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) at Université de Montréal, determine which factors contribute to making music-based interventions successful with autistic children.

Their findings contribute to a new and growing line of research investigating the basis and effectiveness of music-based interventions.

The researchers examined two processes, or “active ingredients”, typical to music-based interventions: joint engagement and movement. Joint engagement happens when a child and adult are involved in a shared activity, potentially interacting with each other around the activity. Movement is inherent to music – whether listening, singing, or playing different instruments – the movements that accompany these actions are inseparable.

Autistic children took part in music or non-music intervention, in individual sessions with a therapist over eight to twelve weeks. Activities targeted communication, social reciprocity, sensorimotor integration, and emotional regulation skills.

The sessions were structured so that both the music and non-music groups participated in activities targeting common goals, except the use of musical activities in the music group and play activities in the non-music group.

The sessions were video recorded for analysis.

Joint engagement and movement – active ingredients in music-based interventions

Researchers found that the children in the music group initiated more spontaneous engagement with their therapist than those in the non-music group, and that they spent less time exclusively engaged with objects (versus the shared activity and the therapist).

Child and adult sitting together at a table, playing the recorder (flute)

Child and adult sitting together at a table. Child examines play-doh.

As joint engagement is often reduced in children with autism, the increased joint engagement observed in the music group was seen to be an important part of the therapy process or “active ingredient” leading to the positive social communication outcomes documented for music-based interventions.

Video analysis showed evidence that body movement was greater in children in the music group. In addition, the therapist was also observed to be moving much more during the music sessions.

It is known that listening to music can lead to spontaneous body movement (think of tapping your feet to a catchy tune), but it is also possible that children with autism may produce more movements during a music intervention given the added structure and predictability of such an activity.

What’s next

This study shows that participation in music-based interventions is characterized by greater joint engagement with the therapist and the activity, and greater overall body movement. These two “active ingredients” may be key processes that produce positive outcomes in such interventions for autistic children.

This evidence should further the development and enhancement of music-based intervention programs for autistic children.


Source: Latif, Nida et al. ‘Joint Engagement and Movement: Active Ingredients of a Music-based Intervention with School-age Children with Autism’. 1 Jan. 2021 : 167 – 185.


About ACAR

The Neuro’s Azrieli Centre for Autism Research (ACAR) transforms research, training and care to improve the quality of life of autistic people and their families. Established in 2017 thanks to the Azrieli Foundation, ACAR operates in the spirit of Open Science, inclusion and community collaboration. The state-of-the-art research centre is committed to advancing understanding of the mechanisms underlying autism and related conditions, developing new diagnostic tools and effective interventions through translational research and care, and training the next generation of fundamental and clinical autism researchers.

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The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) is a bilingual academic healthcare institution. We are a McGill research and teaching institute; delivering high-quality patient care, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. We are proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.




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