During the research on the topic of the use of music to treat students with autism it was found that music can be an is used to treat a wide range of symptoms of autism. It is important to note that there hasn’t been a cure found for autism; however, the symptoms can be treated in some cases. Symptoms of autism include language and communication skills, social and behavioral skills, and motor skills. This literature review will focus on the effect of music in treatment of the social/behavioral symptoms of autism.
There have been several studies investigating using music to treat social deficits of persons with autism. Research is still in the early stages of development and quite limited. A review of the various educational approaches for children with autism published in 2001 stated that there were, “Very few studies that had examined the effectiveness of music therapy with individuals with autism” (Dempsey & Foreman, 2001). Since then there has been more research concerning music therapy and autism.
Many of the studies such as the one conducted by Bhatara, Quintin, Heaton, Fombonne, and Levitin, have been either case studies with individual clients or have had very few subjects. In this particular study 33 individuals were included. The individuals watched an animated show without music then discussed what they thought was happening. Next they watched the same animated show with music and again discussed what events took place. The study concluded that adding music confused the individuals with Autism. It is possible that adding another sensory stimulus can complicate the processing for individuals with autism (Bhatara, Quintin et. al. 2009).
There wasn’t any research found on the effect of just listening to music on the social and/or behavioral symptom of autism. The majority of studies have been produced by music therapists and involve very specific music therapies. These therapies are often hands on between the therapist, client being highly involved with the music in some way, rather than just listening to it. These interactive therapies are the most common way that social behaviors are treated with music (Gold, Wigram, Elefant. 2006).
In 1995, a study was completed by Dawn Wimpory, Paul Chadwick and Susan Nash. The study looked at the effect of musical interaction therapy on a three-year-old girl who had autism was described as “almost totally noncommunicative” (Wimpory, et. al 1995). The musical interaction therapy involved the girl, her mother, and the therapist. The study looked at five social issues including social acknowledgment, frequency of eye contact, child-initiated involvement, positive changes to interaction, and symbolic play by the child. At the end of the study it was noted that the:
“Onset of musical interaction therapy was followed by improvements in the child’s use of social acknowledgement, eye contact, and initiations of interactive involvement. Creative child contributions to interaction…and symbolic play emerged later as predicted. Two-year follow-up confirmed that these positive changes were sustained. The child no longer showed frequent social withdrawal.” (Wimpory et. al. 1995).
Another study completed in 2002 looked at the effect of musical social stories on certain social behaviors in children with autism. There had already been successful studies in this area but this study added music to social stories. This study was completed by Mike Brownell from the University of Kansas who is a board certified music therapist. There were four participants who were recommended by their teachers because they had undergone previous music therapy and had shown positive reactions to it. The study compared the effect of reading social stories versus singing the social story to the students. The results of the study indicated that:
“The difference between the reading and music conditions was sometimes minute and difficult to detect, and only achieved significance in one case. Despite a lack of clear evidence indicating greater treatment efficacy, it can at least be stated that the musical adaptation was consistently at least as effective as the traditional model.” (Brownell, 2002).
In 2006, Petra Kern, Mark Wolery, and David Aldridge conducted a research study to examine the effects of using songs during the greeting routine and if it increased independence. This study involved two subjects who had both undergone successful music therapies in their past. During this study the morning classroom greeting routine was put to music. It was stated that during the periods of intervention “the first client’s performance steadily moved toward independence” (Kern, et. al. 2006). Prior to modification made to the routine the second client’s data was variable, after the modification the data showed positive results. Paretns of both clients and the other children in the class stated that the results were positive. The study concluded that, “The data support the use of individualized songs implemented in this manner to facilitate independent entry into classrooms” (Kern, et. al. 2006).
In 2007 a study was published by Robert Accordino, Ronald Comer, and Wendy Heller. They completed research on the effects of music therapy on autism. This review divided the articles into two groups. One group was social behaviors and included two studies that reviewed social interaction. One study completed by, Wimpory et. al., 1995. This study was discussed previously in this review. The other study cited was conducted by Starr and Finnigan in 2010. This study concluded that there was greater socialization during the intervention; but there was limited impact. Other items included in the review included social behaviors and communication. These sections included several studies that included social behavior. Accordino et al. noted that although, “immense creativity in the design of music therapy reports that have shown the effects of music therapy on the behaviors, socializations, and communication of those with autism, there are several consistent flaws in the research.” In the conclusion it was noted that there was a need for stricter research in order to truly understand whether music therapy is beneficial for persons with autism. The authors stated that very few studies had been statistically analyzed and that it would be important for future researchers to examine the studies done and their flaws which included little or no follow-up as well as the lack of use of control groups.
The National Autism Center conducted the National Standards Project which classified music therapy as an emerging evidenced-based practice helpful in teaching skills and or goals by targeting the skill through song or rhythmic cuing. The project reported on six studies that used a range of music techniques (2009).
Music therapy is performed by trained professionals and is most commonly used for individuals with special needs. Music therapy is performed in order to assist in attainment of developmental goals in several different areas including; motor skills, social development, self- awareness, and cognitive development (Patterson, 2003). According to Patterson, the role of a music therapist in the school setting is to assess a child’s needs and teach to academic and social skills in areas of deficit both with and without music (Patterson, 2003).
In a study conducted by Clarkson, music was used to gain contact and interaction with a student, and eventually Clarkson used music, along with facilitated communication, to help him develop better communication skills (Clarkson, 1994). By 1992, Clarkson reported that in three years, the student’s behavior had improved, he started to have socially acceptable eye contact as well as communication with others. According to Clarkson, “Music can be a valuable tool not only for reaching students with autism but for also working with any children delayed in language” (Clarkson, 1994).