Joint attention responses of children with ASD to simple vs. complex music.


Kalas, A., (2012). Joint attention responses of children with autism spectrum disorder to simple versus complex music. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(4), pp. 430-452.

I have learned that reading research is an art and takes practice. My goal for discussing this particular article is to help you understand the significance of this research for the music therapy community and for parents and caregivers of children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Ms. Kalas completed this research for her master’s degree from the University of Miami in Miami, FL. I found this article most intriguing since I work with individuals with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her study included thirty children of varying backgrounds and ethnicity who were diagnosed either with severe ASD or with mild/moderate ASD. This qualitative study involved complex statistical analysis and specialized coding to insure validity and reliability. In other words, she wanted to make sure that she established guidelines within her research to make sure the results were sound and contained little room for error.

It is common knowledge that individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder have deficits in social skills. Kalas (2012) paraphrased Mundy & Acra’s (2006) definition of joint attention as “the process of engaging another person’s attention to share in the experience of observing an object or event” (p. 431). In other words, if you say, “Look at the drum, Johnny” and point to the drum, the question is does Johnny look at what you are pointing to or does he not focus on it at all. With this in mind, Kalas wanted to examine how the complexity of the music used to direct a child with either severe or mild/moderate ASD would determine their level of joint attention.

Researchers go to great lengths to make sure that their method is sound. They often use two groups of individuals, examine how they are going to process and analyze the information they are seeking. Kalas did use two different groups and calculated the specific method she wished to present to the children. The article contains examples of the simple verses complex music and details of how she went about working with the different groups. She also used other trained researchers to assist her in taking the data to make sure she was not biased.

Her results showed a significant difference in how those with severe ASD verses those with mild/moderate ASD responded to the simple verses complex music. Those with severe ASD responded better with the simple music and those with mild/moderate ASD responded better with the complex music. For music therapists working with children on the Autism Spectrum, this research is quite revealing. In her discussion, Kalas shared that some of the children with severe ASD covered their ears when presented the complex music. She surmised that it was possibly too much stimuli. I know those of us who have worked with children with severe ASD have probably witnessed similar behaviors. I think these children are trying to communicate that complex stimuli is too much for their brains to process.

While every research study has limitations, such as the lack of a “control” group or a group with no musical stimulus, I agree with her conclusion that simple music is better for children with severe ASD. She also showed that children with mild/moderate ASD responded more positively to the complex music. She stated that the complexity possibly provided “a sense of novelty for children with mild/moderate ASD and [created] anticipation of what is to come next” when listening to the varying keyboard accompaniments and syncopated rhythms (p. 450).

For parents and caretakers, as well as music therapists, this study confirms much of what we already know; children with severe ASD need simple not complex stimuli to elicit a response for joint attention.

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC

Neurologic Music Therapist

Athens, OH