Home > Science, Uncategorized > Music as a Path to Language in Autism

Music as a Path to Language in Autism

Today’s guest blog post is from Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory and associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, in Boston. He is a recent recipient of an Autism Speaks Treatment Research Grant.

As many as three in ten children with autism are nonverbal. Yet many children with autism have superior auditory skills and a particular attraction to music. Based on these observations, I and my colleagues have been using forms of music-making that encourage vocalization as a pathway to developing language.

We call our therapy Auditory-Motor Mapping Training (AMMT), and our approach is built on two findings.

First research has shown that music-making creates clear changes in the human brain. In particular we know that it engages and strengthens connections between the auditory and motor regions and improves mapping of sounds to actions. Second, here at our Music and Neuroimaging Lab, we have successfully used a form of singing (i.e., Melodic Intonation Therapy) to help stroke patients regain speech lost after a stroke (aphasia). In essence, our therapies involve having the patient sing words and phrases while using a coordinated movement of the hand not affected by the stroke. This helps their brains map sounds to actions.

In recent years, we’ve adapted our music-motor therapy for stroke victims in ways that allow us to use it with children who have autism and little or no speech. In simplified terms: Our team members sing words and phrases with social connotations (for example, “more please,” “mommy,” “all done”) to the children and with the children, while showing them pictures of the action, person or object. At the same time, we guide each child’s hand to play two drum pads tuned to different pitches.

We believe that intensive, repetitive training—pairing sound with actions–can engage and strengthen the brain pathways needed to speak. In our recently published “proof of concept” study, each participant received 40 treatment sessions, conducted 5 days per week over an 8 week period, with each session lasting 45 minutes. Further analysis revealed that the therapy’s benefits probably occur in the first 25 sessions.

We have seen very encouraging results in our pilot and proof-of-concept studies and are now excited to expand our research and therapy program with a 2011 treatment grant from Autism Speaks. In other words, this funding and this study are being made possible by you—Autism Speaks’ community of supporters. Thank you. We look forward to reporting back our results! Meanwhile, please visit our lab’s website: http://www.musicianbrain.com.

Read more science news and perspective on the science page. And explore more of the studies we’re funding with our grant search.

  1. Sue
    December 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Wow! Fantastic! I hope to see more positive results. Has there been any thought about using this w/ aphasia or limited speech in other situations, i.e. head injuries?

  2. December 27, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Wow – very exciting! I can see how this would be successful. My twin boys have improved eye contact when we sign and play music. Music reaches them in away language does not.

  3. December 27, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you so much for this!! Autistic children love music, and this should be a fruitful way to encourage speech. My son was not quite 2 years old and could sing the 12 Days of Christmas without missing a stanza. Sadly he never acquired full language competency. His problems were the result of anoxia at birth, a known cause of ischemic injury of brainstem auditory nuclei (see Windle WF, Scientific American, October 1969).

    Just this year Kulesza et al. discovered abnormalities of the superior olive in the brainstem auditory pathway (Brain Res 2011 Jan 7; 1367:360-71), and they produced this injury by exposing laboratory rats to valproic acid (Depakote) during gestation. Prenatal Depakote exposure is associated with some cases of autism.

    My son had excellent auditory (musical) memory. I think what he had difficulty hearing was boundaries between words and syllables. I hope this might be included in the music-speech therapy sessions.

  4. Stefanie
    December 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I am very interested in talking to someone to see if my son Jonathan (who has been diagonised with austism spectrum disorder) could take part in the study. A teacher in his school is using music therapy to help him with sentence structure. He has responded very well and his teacher believes music is his gift.
    If there is any openings to be involved in this study please respond.
    Thank you

  5. December 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    i am so excited to see that they are finally getting this out into the public eye. i have researched this. i wish my daughter could be a test to this. as i have known about and pushed to have this therapy looked into. my daughter is 22 now and does make sounds but would like to see her speak. thank you for your service that i think will change some of the autistic people.

  6. December 27, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    I can vouch that music helps children with autism. My boys, both of whom are autistic, seem to respond very well when it came to using or playing [with] musical instruments. They also love to sing along to music especially songs they knew. I was thinking of developing an app that would play music and show the words to the song to allow the children to sing along as the song was playing. I believe this will help in them develop their auditory skills. I know this because my children have learned alot from the website Starfall. My boys love our Android phones which is why I would create an app for it.

  7. December 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Are you familiar with Josh Groban’s “Find Your Light” Foundation? They are interested in the arts as a way of helping kids.

  8. December 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    This is so interesting. I am a musician providing children’s music enrichment programs and I would love to use my knowledge in Early Childhood along with my passion for music to help those children with autism. Thanks for the info!

  9. December 28, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    As the author of the Starabella audio/picture book series for children ages 2-8, I appreciate reading your article about children on the spectrum learning through music. Starabella is a little girl with learning differences who expresses her thoughts and feelings through beautiful and inspiring music. The Starabella character is based on the childhood music and experiences of my daughter Tara who taught herself to play and compose music by ear. When her words were reduced to short phrases, she turned to her piano to express her thoughts and feelings and reflections of the world around her. Remarkably she could add beautiful lyrics to her music though she had a hard time with conversational speech. All of the messages in the Starabella stories are reinforced with music to aid comprehension.

  10. Cynthia
    December 28, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I have heard that language acquisition occurs when 3 nerve pathways to the auditory, visual and importantly the motor centers are stimulated simultaneously. This therapy uses all three stimuli to elicit the acquisition of language. This is very good news. We thank you.

  11. December 29, 2011 at 1:38 am

    i would like to tell you about “The sounds of a miracle” it is a book by a mother of the experience with autism and music therapy. also i have started a facebook page called http://www.facebook.com/pages/Autism-a-silent-world-in-a-world-of-confusion/299026233469492 come visit and i post different things for autism. thank you.

  12. Shannon Jones
    December 29, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Amazing! I’m not surprised as my 3 yr old non-verbal autistic son has responded amazingly to music therapy! I can’t wait to read more on your research and findings. Thank you for you time & effort!

  13. sarahcavin@yahoo.com
    January 6, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I have a nephew who is now 5 with autism. Up to almost the age of four he was non-verbal until the miracle of his music class/therapy. It was a one-on-one class with the music teacher doing various activities which involved music not just playing instruments. He started the class around the age of three and within that year he was no longer just following the words with the music teacher as he sang he was singing with the music teacher. It was like a switch was turned on inside his brain. Now our family jokes around that he is now the “loud” kid in the room and we would not change that in a million years!

    The teacher is named mike and he works in Ann Arbor Michigan if you are interested in possible getting in contact with him I can give you more information.

  14. January 6, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    This sounds much like AIT/DAA (Auditory Integration Training and Digital Auditory Aerobics).
    Dr. Berard found that using music that had been randomly altered and filtered stimulated the brain. Additionally retraining the auditory system to be more right eared, excites the language areas(Broca and Werneke Areas) of the brain found on the left side of the brain.
    I have seen this happen as well as, other improvements when I work with both children and adults.

    • January 10, 2012 at 9:29 pm

      i thank you for telling others. i have been trying for ten years now to let people know about a.i.t. if they would put more into this i think they would see what a difference it makes! i saw a boy in my town and his mom told me he was severe and you couldn’t tell he ever was.

  15. January 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Fantastic study…what we at Autism Movement Therapy have been doing for years now!
    So nice to finally see music and movement being used as a respected form of therapy with our kids. We now certifiy individuals in the Autism Movement Therapy (AMT) method across the country and in Europe to teach others how to create and provide a movement and music program for individuals with autism. Good work Dr Schlaug!

  16. ruth rosen
    January 7, 2012 at 3:02 am

    Is there a source for this program in West Los Angeles. My grandson seems to be falling behind even speaking less than he did 2 years ago. Due to the cost cutting in the Los Angeles School district he has been refused services that had been agreed to under a contractual decision.

    He is 11 years old and seems to have many interests and enjoys music (classical), art and science. math is difficult for him. It is tragic to see him lose the gains he had made over the years.
    Does anyone have any information for us?

    • January 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      HI Ruth- we have an Autism Movement Therapy Class every Sat 11:30-12;15pm in Van Nuys.
      Call me for more details – we would love to have your grandson join us!
      Joanne Lara, MA
      http://www.autismmovementtherapy.com
      “Programs like Joanne’s Autism Movement Therapy offer opportunities for our kids to develop the necessary and fundamental skills that benefit all our kids. Art saved my life!” – Temple Grandin, PhD

      “Autism Movement Therapy is a solid method we have chosen to integrate into our DRAGONFLIES program. We have seen first hand the reorganizing of the brain. The students of the AMT classes are opening up their minds to self expression, behaviors are decreasing and the non-verbal children are increasing in speech and language skills. Thank you Joanne, for creating a method that works.”

      Julia Boyd
      Jacob’s MOM
      Director of DRAGONFLIES Special Need Program

      Dani has more bounce in her step than ever before! Upon completion of just one session of Autism Movement Therapy a friend commented that she had never heard Dani speak more clearly and so completely. …After 19 years of therapies and endless searching for a way to “tap in” to my daughters trapped thoughts so that she can organize and verbally express her learned and creative abilities, Joanne Lara has given us renewed hope. Joanne’s forty-five minute class is fun for young children, teens, and young adults. The constant movement requiring the sequencing of the right and the left hemisphere of the brain is accompanied by a variety of music selections and Joanne’s energetic spirit. Dani looks forward to every “dance class” and enjoys following Joanne’s video at home. Dani’s expressive vocabulary seems to be easier to access and a little more sophisticated each week. As Dani’s mother, I now have a little more bounce in my step…thank you Joanne!

      Kathy Levenson, Agoura Ca.

      Saturday’s at 11:30-12:15
      R & R Arts Center
      15359 Cohasset St
      Van Nuys, Ca 91406
      323 240-0361
      Siblings & Friends Welcome

  17. January 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I studied with Annabel Stehli, who wrote “Sound of a Miracle”, as well as, editing two other books of personal case studies and stories of successes. Her daughter’s book is most exciting to read. It is entitlled, “Overcoming Autism”.(by Georgiana Thomas)
    Her website is:www.georgianainstitute.org
    I am a certified practitioner of Digital Auditory Aerobics(DAA)in central Ohio but each state has listings for other practitioners. AIT is based on Dr. Guy Berard’s protocol called Auditory Integration Training(AIT). Feel free to contact me at http://www.soundsgood.daa@gmail.com; or 740-501-0827

  18. Catherine Gansmann, MT-BC
    January 13, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Excellent article. Please send any related information. I am a music therapist working with children with autism as I have for nearly 2 decades. Your studies are very validating given the gross understimation of the power of music and movement.

  19. January 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    My grandson, now 4 years old was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 18 months old. He was speaking age appropriately and then stopped. He was diagnosed at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.
    He is in his second year of special needs at the local school in Fremont, NH and receives no other interventions and has no real improvement. It is heartbreaking!
    His parents are currently separated and their home is in forclosure. They are waitting for the eviction any day now.
    My grandson gets so excited when I play the piano for him; although I am an amateur, he loves to press the keys with me and we make music together. This shows an improvement in his focus and attention, and a beautiful smile, although not a cure, but the best feeling in the world to a grammy who loves him with all her heart and soul.
    If there are any recomondations from Boston, Mass as to how he could be involved in this program, I would love the feedback.

    Thank you,

    Victor’s Grammy
    Fremont, NH.

    • January 16, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      HI Debra- I would like to direct you to the Autism Movement Therapy movement and music method. If you visit our website you will see the aut-erobics DVD up in the rt corner of the home page. Click on that to order – he will do it daily —start with level I — (11min) and do it with him like you would a workout DVD. If you want to see a sample vid- click above the DVD cover image. As he progresses move to level 11 and then Level 111.

      There are lots of quotes and testimonials – here’s the latest…
      “Autism Movement Therapy is a solid method we have chosen to integrate into our DRAGONFLIES program. We have seen first hand the reorganizing of the brain. The students of the AMT classes are opening up their minds to self expression, behaviors are decreasing and the non-verbal children are increasing in speech and language skills. Thank you Joanne, for creating a method that works.”

      Julia Boyd
      Jacob’s MOM
      Director of DRAGONFLIES Special Need Program
      Autism Movement Therapy Instructor Level II

      jboyd@dancelifecenter.com
      Mattoon/Charleston Illinois
      http://www.facebook.com/dragonflies22

      If you want to call or email me please feel free- I would love to speak with you.
      Take care
      Joanne Lara, MA
      http://www.autismmovementtherapy.com

      Autism Movement Therapy, Inc
      http://www.autismmovementtherapy.com
      323.240.0361

      “Programs like Joanne’s Autism Movement Therapy offer opportunities for our kids to develop the necessary and fundamental skills that benefit all our kids. Art saved my life!” – Temple Grandin, PhD

  20. January 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    debra. so happy to hear that you play the piano with him. i did that many years ago for my daughter. at that time she was not interested but i have always tried to keep a small keyboard of some sort for her. at 22 she is starting to show me she has the want and the ability to play the piano. she went from pounding on it to using one finger then now about three fingers playing in unison. it has been so great to watch her grow from a very unattentive person to a person that loves to have me sit and play the piano. i have no experience but am learning by ear. i played the violin a little in school. ialso sing to her and now she tries to hum back to me. she is on the severe end of autism. good luck.

  21. Terri
    January 26, 2012 at 11:35 am

    This is wonderful! . I have a non-verbal 7 yrs old boy .
    I’d like know some contacts for this type of AMMT classes in the North Dallas TX area.
    Thanks!!!

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