Speech and Song in Autism


Functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) can give us pictures of what happens to children’s brains when comparing speech vs. song activity.  Researchers Lai, Pantazatos, Schneider and Hirsch (2012) looked at the neural systems for speech and song in children with autism compared to typically developing children.  The results showed that “functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than speech” (p. 961).  Knowing that music activates more areas of the brain than speech, this finding is not surprising.
The researchers looked specifically at areas of the brain that process speech which is the Broca’s area of the brain.  Individuals diagnosed with autism show reduced activity in this area.  By using the two distinct imaging systems, different systems in the brain were examined at the same time in low-functioning autistic individuals and typically developing individuals for control and comparison reasons.  Using thirty-six patients with autism, researchers sedated some of these individuals for the testing, but were also able to test some who were alert.  The twenty-one non-autistic individuals were imaged alert, however, some moved so much (two of the control and four of the autistic) that their results were not usable.  The subjects of the study were compared based on age, not IQ and comparisons between sedated and alert were included in the results.  Since the subjects were children, the researchers used movies without sound to help them stay still during the imaging.  As stated above, movement during the testing would result in not being able to use the data collected.
Most of the children with autism had limited word output, however, when compared to the control group, the autism group liked the familiar song used just as much as the control group.  However, this study showed the same results as in previous studies that there are “decreased functional responses to speech stimulation in autistic subjects” (p. 971).  
While there are always limitations in research, I consider the findings for this study interesting.  Music therapists are aware that children with autism enjoy music and respond well to music.  There are implications within this study that show different areas of their brain are activated compared to typically developing children.  Knowing this can guide a music therapist in their development of techniques and treatment options when working with a child with autism.
Lai, G., Pantazatos, S. P., Schneider, H., & Hirsch, J. (2012).  Neural systems for speech and song in autism.  Brain:  A Journal of Neurology, 135, pp. 961-975.
Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC
Neurologic Music Therapist

Stephanie H. Morris