Enhanced Social Skills Through Music Therapy in Children with Autism

Enhanced Social Skills Through Music Therapy in Children with Autism

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), pp. 250-275.

Once again, we find ourselves looking for research that supports the effectiveness of music therapy with individuals on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  This article examines specifically at how music therapy can make a difference in social skills training.

Dr. LaGasse, a well-known researcher in the field of music therapy and autism, was able to complete this research funded by the Flagler Flutz Research Fund sponsored by the American Music Therapy Association.  Located at Colorado State University, Dr. LaGasse used research assistants, other music therapists, teachers, and of course, the children and parents to assist her in completing this study.  Without the cooperation of participants, research would not be possible.

As I stated in my blog back in September 2014, it is common knowledge that individuals with ASD have challenges with social skills.  LaGasse (2014) was specifically interested in “the effects of a music therapy group intervention on eye gaze, joint attention, and communication in children with ASD” (p. 250).  Social skills involve more than one person.  She wanted to see the effects of music therapy in a group setting for these individuals versus a group without music.

This particular study used two groups of children, randomly place in a music therapy group (MTG) or a social skills group (SSG).  Seventeen children, ranging in age between 6 – 9, participated in this study along with their parents or guardians filling out scales and checklists to help support the findings.  The sessions were also video-taped, with permission, and participants received vouchers allowing them to get individualized music therapy sessions after the study was complete.  Dr. LaGasse, who was probably the lead music therapist, had assistants in her music therapy group who helped with bathroom breaks, supporting students if prompted to do so and aiding in using communication devices if needed.  A teacher skilled in social skills groups ran the non-music group using assistants for the same reason.  The sessions included the same target behaviors with the only difference being the presence or lack of music.  Each group started with a greeting exercise, followed by a sensory experience, group interaction, another sensory experience, cooperative play and ended with a farewell.  Table 2 on pages 260 – 261 outline the example session outline used by both the music and non-music group.  The researcher defined each target behavior and listed them in Table 1 on page 258.

As I have stated before, researchers go to great lengths to make sure their study is valid and has little room for error.  In order to analyze the results of the questionnaires and checklists completed by the parents, LaGasse used special software to calculate the statistical calculations.  Some of the numbers can be difficult to understand so I will not try to explain those in this article.  Disclosure does require, however, the exact happenings, which took place during the study.  Some of the parents did not complete all the surveys and checklists, which can sometimes ruin the results.  Nonetheless, the results also were based on the changes in behavior identified by the researcher and her assistants.  I feel, however, that the validity of this study lies in the rigor in which the sessions were planned and the use of the music based on Thaut’s (2000) Transformation Design Model.  Dr. LaGasse’s knowledge of Neurologic Music Therapy certainly aided this process to make sure the musical experiences mirrored those of the non-musical experiences.

LaGasse (2014) states, “There were significant between-group differences for joint attention with peers and eye gaze towards person, with participants in the MTG demonstrating greater gains” (p. 250).  Her discussion goes into detail identifying differences between the two groups and why significant results found less improvement in some areas and not in others.  For music therapists, the conclusion is exciting and encourages more research.  LaGasse (2014) also states, “the intervention improved parental perception of social skills….” (p. 271).  In my opinion, this is positive because if parental understanding is greater, then the likelihood of increased work at home on social skills climbs.

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC
Neurologic Music Therapist