Music improves communication in children with autism

Music is part of what it is to be human. No other animal fully understands and dominates all aspects of music, such as rhythm, melody and harmony.

In fact, music has been around for many generations. The oldest instrument found were flutes that date from 43,000 to 82,000 years ago.

Even so, it is possible to suppose that, before that moment, primitive humans already played percussion instruments. After all, it is enough to hit one stone on the other in a pattern to have rhythm, one of the components of the music.

This relationship between human beings and music has been shown to be more and more profound and, incredibly, beneficial to health.

Through music therapy, a technique developed in military hospitals of World War II, it is possible to help patients with neurological disorders, heart disease, dementia and many other conditions.

One is autism .

How can music help children on the spectrum?

Engaging in musical activities, such as singing and playing instruments in individual therapies, can improve the social communication skills of autistic children, improve their quality of life and that of their families, and increase brain connectivity in important locations.

That was the conclusion of the study by researchers at the University of Montreal and McGill University, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry .

To reach these conclusions, researchers at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research at the University of Montreal and the McGill University School of Disorders and Communication Sciences recruited 51 children with autism, aged 6 to 12 years, to participate in a clinical trial involving 3 months of music therapy sessions.

First, parents answered questionnaires about the child’s social communication skills and the family’s quality of life, as well as the severity of their children’s symptoms.

The children were then submitted to magnetic resonance imaging to establish a baseline of their brain activity. Then, they were randomly separated into two groups: one that would do music therapy sessions and the other that would not.

In the music group, the children participated in 45-minute sessions in which they sang and played different musical instruments, working with a therapist to engage in a reciprocal interaction.

The control group, the one that did not get involved with music, worked with the same therapist and also got involved with reciprocal play, but without any musical activity.

After the 3 months of sessions, the parents of the children in the music group reported a significantly greater number of improvements in the children’s communication skills when compared to the control group.

The data collected on magnetic resonance suggest that improving communication skills in children who have undergone musical intervention may be the result of greater connectivity between the auditory and motor regions of the brain, as well as decreased connectivity between the auditory and visual regions.

That is, as the child is encouraged to play an instrument, he ends up using the motor and auditory areas of the brain at the same time.

And the connectivity between these regions is crucial to integrate sensory stimuli in the environment, and is also essential for social interaction.

For example, when we are communicating with someone else, we need to pay attention to what they are saying, plan ahead what we are going to say and ignore the irrelevant noises for conversation.

For people with autism, this can be a challenging task.

Understand Autism

Autism, which can also be called Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a disorder that causes problems in language development, communication processes and social interaction and behavior.

The causes of autism are still unknown, however, the most accepted hypothesis today is that ASD happens due to a combination of factors such as genetic predisposition and the influence of environmental factors.

Symptoms of the disorder usually begin to appear at around 2 years of age, and make it difficult for autistic children at this stage to play pretend, interact with others and communicate, verbally or not.

In addition, many autistic people have highly sensitive vision, hearing, taste, touch or smell, which leads them to experience the world in a completely different way.

For them, for example, a normal noise can be painful, causing them to cover their ears with their hands.

This can often make them emotionally unstable at times, showing exaggerated or abnormal emotional changes to the simplest changes in routine.

It is possible that there will be tantrums , low attention span, hyperactivity or excessive passivity, aggressive behavior towards other people and towards yourself, etc.

It is worth remembering that the symptoms vary a lot from person to person, being more severe in some and milder in others.

People within the spectrum may still experience communication problems, such as:

  • Failing to start or maintain a conversation;
  • Communicate through gestures instead of words;
  • Develop language slowly or not at all;
  • Do not adjust your vision to look at objects that other people are looking at;
  • Do not refer to yourself in the right way – the child can say “you want water”, when he wanted to say “I want water”;
  • Repeat memorized words or passages, such as commercials;
  • Use meaningless rhymes.

Although there is no cure, there are a number of treatments that can help people within the spectrum to develop fully and with quality of life.

These treatments involve therapy, medication use, occupational therapy and communication and behavior therapy. And now, why not, music therapy?

Music therapy no Brazil

Music therapy is widely used in Brazil. As it is a hybrid between art and health, professionals in the field, music therapists, graduate from higher education courses offered at art schools, given that, to practice the profession, it is necessary to have an advanced mastery of musical instruments such as the piano and the guitar.

Music therapists work in clinics, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, outpatient clinics, daycare centers, agencies that assist people with developmental problems, mental health centers, elderly centers, correctional facilities, schools and many other places.

In addition, music therapy has been offered free of charge by SUS (Unified Health System) since January 2017. The adoption of the technique aims to offer a more humanized treatment, and the Ministry of Health has also started to offer art therapy, meditation, chiropractic and other alternative techniques.

Autism is a disorder that brings numerous challenges to its carriers. However, sometimes, something simple, like music, can become a great ally in improving the quality of life of people within the spectrum.

This study was the first clinical trial to demonstrate that musical intervention for school-age children with autism can bring great benefits to their communication and development.

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