Music and Autism

The Sounds Of Learning: Studying The
Impact Of Music On Children With Autism

ScienceDaily (July 21, 2009) — In June 2009, researchers reported
that archaeologists in Germany had discovered a 35,000-year-old flute made of
bird bone. It represented, one newspaper said, “the earliest known
flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture.” And we have been tapping
our toes, humming along, singing and dancing ever since.

The power of music affects all of us and has long appealed to our
emotions. It is for this reason that UCLA researchers are using music to help
children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), for whom understanding emotions
is a very difficult task. This inability robs them of the chance to communicate
effectively and make friends and can often lead to social isolation and

Thanks to a grant from the NAMM Foundation, the trade association
of the international music products association, Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a
researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity and
member of the of the Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance, and colleagues
have developed a music education program designed to help children with ASD
better understand emotions and learn to recognize emotions in others.

“This is a ‘naturalistic study,’ in that it takes place not
in a lab but in the child’s classroom at the Help Group’s Village Glen School
for children with autism, where they are engaged in music-making,”
Molnar-Szakacs said.

Specifically, the children are using a method of music education
known as the Orff-Schulwerk approach. Developed by 20th-century German composer
Carl Orff (“schulwerk” is German for schooling), it is a unique
approach to music learning that is supported by movement and based on things
that kids 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

“Music is a birthright of all children. To be able to listen
and appreciate, sing or participate in music-making are as essential to
development as mathematical or linguistic learning,” Molnar-Szakacs said.
“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.”

In fact, he said, participating in musical activities has the
potential to scaffold and enhance all other learning and development, from
timing and language to social skills.

“Beyond these more concrete intellectual benefits, the
extraordinary power of music to trigger memories and emotions and join us
together as an emotional, empathic and compassionate humanity are
invaluable,” Molnar-Szakacs said.

The goal of the research is to evaluate the effect of the music
education program on outcomes in social communication and emotional
functioning, as well as the children’s musical development, according to

“Hopefully this will be a fun, engaging and cost-effective
therapeutic intervention to help children with ASD recognize and understand
emotions in daily life interactions,” he said. “An improved ability
to recognize social emotions will allow these children to form more meaningful
social relationships and hopefully greatly improve their quality of life.”

Molnar-Szakacs is collaborating on the grant with Elizabeth A.
Laugeson, a UCLA clinical instructor of psychiatry and director of the Help
Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance.

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