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Autism

Can Music Help Children with Autism Learn Language?

Autistic children with no or few words may learn language through music.

Key points

  • Some autistic individuals show exceptional musical skills.
  • The autistic brain reacts to song differently than to speech.
  • Music-assisted language interventions may help autistic children learn language.

As a psychologist as well as a linguist, I am fascinated by the idea of how music and language can shape our brain, and how our brain attunes to musical and speech sounds differently. I study this topic by looking into how individuals with different musical and language abilities produce and perceive sounds in different domains.

One population I study are those with autism, or autistic individuals, as is the preferred term by the autism community in the UK and elsewhere. A large body of evidence has suggested that some autistic individuals possess exceptional musical skills, e.g., absolute pitch—the ability to classify musical notes without a reference tone. One famous example is Derek Paravicini, a musical savant with autism, who can play music by ear and communicate better with music than using words. As revealed by our recent systematic review and meta-analysis, autistic individuals are also better able to recognise emotions such as happiness from music than from human faces.

Thus, music appears an area of enhanced abilities for a subgroup of autistic individuals. Comparing brain responses to speech versus song, a study shows that the brain region responsible for production of language (i.e., Broca’s area) is less activated during speech stimulation but more activated during song stimulation in autistic children with language impairments. The functional connectivity between Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (important for language comprehension) is also increased in song compared to speech stimulation in these children. These findings suggest that the autistic brain is more engaged with song than with speech.

Jonas Mohamadi/Pexels
Photo of a boy listening in headphones.
Source: Jonas Mohamadi/Pexels

In our EU-funded MAP project, we tested whether language taught through songs using interactive activities in naturalistic home settings would increase spoken communication in 2- to 5-year-old autistic children with no or few words, through a randomised controlled feasibility trial. Our recently published study protocol outlines our approach of using music to attract the attention of these children to speech.

A rationale behind this approach is that music is a powerful tool for reinforcing social bonding through synchronized musical activities such as singing and dancing, which release endorphins—neurohormones associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and social motivation.

Indeed, a study examining the beneficial effect of music on social communication skills in school-age autistic children found improved social communication as well as functional brain connectivity after a period of 8-12 weeks of music intervention involving child-centered activities facilitated by music.

Since language is typically learned through social interaction, with autistic children’s preference for musical sounds and the social bonding power of music, music-assisted language interventions may help autistic children learn language.

References

Kenny, L., Hattersley, C., Molins, B., Buckley, C., Povey, C., & Pellicano, E. (2016). Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community. Autism, 20(4), 442–462. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361315588200

Kupferstein, H., & Walsh, B. J. (2016). Non-verbal paradigm for assessing individuals for absolute pitch. World Futures, 72(7–8), 390–405. https://doi.org/10.1080/02604027.2014.989780

Lai, G., Pantazatos, S. P., Schneider, H., & Hirsch, J. (2012). Neural systems for speech and song in autism. Brain, 135(3), 961–975. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awr335

Leung, F., Sin, J., Dawson, C., Ong, J., Zhao, C., Veic, A., & Liu, F. (2022). Emotion recognition across visual and auditory modalities in autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. Developmental Review, 63, 101000. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2021.101000.

Meltzoff, A. N., Kuhl, P. K., Movellan, J., & Sejnowski, T. J. (2009). Foundations for a new science of learning. Science, 325(5938), 284–288. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1175626

Ockelford, A. (2008). In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini. Cornerstone.

Ouimet, T., Foster, N. E. V., Tryfon, A., & Hyde, K. L. (2012). Auditory-musical processing in autism spectrum disorders: A review of behavioral and brain imaging studies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252, 325–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06453.x

Sharda, M., Tuerk, C., Chowdhury, R., Jamey, K., Foster, N., Custo-Blanch, M., Tan, M., Nadig, A., & Hyde, K. (2018). Music improves social communication and auditory–motor connectivity in children with autism. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-018-0287-3

Tarr, B., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2014). Music and social bonding: “Self-other” merging and neurohormonal mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1096. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01096

Williams, T., Loucas, T., Sin, J., Jeremic, M., Aslett, G., Knight, M., Fincham-Majumdar, S., & Liu, F. (2021). A randomised controlled feasibility trial of music-assisted language telehealth intervention for minimally verbal autistic children - the MAP study protocol. Pilot and Feasibility Studies. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40814-021-00918-9.

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