Review: Effects of Music Therapy Group Intervention on Enhancing Social Skills
in Children with Autism
Reviewed by Florencia Rusinol, music therapy intern
A study was done at Colorado State University by A. Blythe LaGasse, PhD, MT-BC that was used to determine the effects of music therapy group intervention to enhance social skills in children with Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). LaGasse analyzed the difference between non-musical Social Skills Group (SSG) intervention and Music Therapy Group (MTG) intervention in five categories: Eye gaze, joint attention, and initiation of communication, response to communication, and social withdrawal/behaviors.
LaGasse reviewed existing literature prior to the study and social skills training was determined to be a dire need for children with ASD. She quoted the National Research Council for Educating children with ASD who insists social skills training as some of the most important lessons that these children will learn. The Council also believes that any goals for these children should include social skills training to participate in family, school and community activities.
Social skills are a more difficult skill to acquire for children with ASD because it requires several steps of motor planning and sequencing. These steps include perceiving multiple sensory stimuli, placing context to understand others’ intentions, formulating a response, and then carrying out their intended response. Rhythmic and structural components of music may provide an external cue to help children with ASD to organize, predict, and respond to their environment. These cues help them to anticipate the response time and gives these children time to plan and sequence their responses.
In the study, 17 children with only ASD were randomly divided into the Social Skills Group (SSG) and the Music Therapy Group (MTG) for two 50-minute sessions a week for five weeks. The structure of the session included a welcome, a sensory experience (deep pressure), group interaction, another sensory experience (motor), a cooperative play activity, and a goodbye). In the SSG, a certified educator trained to work with this population led activities with certain board games or other games. During the MTG, a board-certified music therapist led various instrument play activities that utilize different timbres, as well as movement activities. LaGasse gathered data using parent report and video observation. For the parent report, she used two scales: the Social Responsiveness Scale and the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist. These scales were completed several times by the parents over the course of the study and three weeks after the conclusion of treatment.
The results of this study presented a statistically significant between-group difference in joint attention with peers and eye gaze towards persons. For the categories of initiating communication, response to communication and social withdrawal/behaviors, no statistically significant improvements between groups were shown.
This research is largely important to music therapists across the country working with this population. For example, deep pressure, a sensory intervention, was used in both the SSG and MTG groups, and that technique set to music is something I have not seen implemented before; however, doing this intervention before the more complex social interventions reinforces that other goals can not be addressed until the clients’ most basic sensory needs are met. This idea is something I had not experienced before my internship at The George Center, and LaGasse’s research found this concept significant as well.
This research also provided ideas for interventions specifically addressing social skills training in group settings. For example, the cooperative play intervention where the participants are put in pairs and take turns playing instruments with each other is a very useful intervention to promote that social interaction with peers.
Although LaGasse’s research did not show statistical significance in all the categories of social skills, it did provide a clear improvement for eye gaze and joint attention. Additionally, it provided a clear direction for social skills music therapy groups to point towards and reiterated the need for social skills training in children with ASD. However, there is much need for future research. For example, it would be useful to do another study determining what interventions may be more effective to increase initiating and responding in communication. Also, are there better interventions for decreasing social withdrawal behaviors in a group setting? Another interesting comparison would be to add a control group with no social skills training to see how the improvements compare to a music therapy group.
LaGasse, A. B. (2014). Effects of a music therapy group intervention on enhancing social skills in children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy 51(3), 250-275. doi: 10.1093/jmt/thu012