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Research Review

Studying the Impact of Music on Children With Autism

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 loneliness.

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 says.

Specifically, the children are using a method of music education known as the Orff-Schulwerk approach, a type of music learning that is supported by movement and based on things that kids intuitively like to do, such as sing, chant rhymes, clap, and dance.

The 12-week program uses elements from the Orff method 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 setting.

"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," Molnar-Szakacs says.

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 Molnar-Szakacs.

"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 says. "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."

— Source: UCLA Health Sciences