Children with autism enjoy the predictable rhythm of song, so adding it to social interactions can help development, according to a Vanderbuilt University researcher presenting at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living.

Miriam Lense, PhD, offered “Rhythm, Timing and Song in Early Social Development in Autism: Mechanisms and Clinical Implications,” exploring her research into how rhythm and song facilitate communication for children and babies with autism.

“Coordinated social interaction is built on predictable, rhythmic behavior and speech,” she explained. “In infants, infant-caregiver interaction is built on rhythmic entrainment. Infants pay attention to meaningful social information such as the caregiver’s eyes, and this promotes development.”

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Eyeing personal connections

Her research examined responses of two- and six-month old infants to social cues from their caregiver, given in time to rhythmic beats. Older babies showed increased response to the cues, with eye contact keeping time to the beat.

“This helps optimize meaningful engagement,” Dr. Lense noted.

A different approach was needed to address the deficits in autism, including:

  • Coordinated eye gaze
  • Vocalization
  • Social smiling
  • Joint attention

Researchers, to counter the deficits, tapped musical and rhythmic stimuli associated with social communication skills.

“We took singing and reduced the predictability of the beat to see if infants and toddlers would continue to entrain their eye looking,” she said.

At 24 months, babies with autism were able to coordinate their eye looking with the beat, but were unable to adjust if the beat became erratic. Typically developing babies of the same age were able to adjust when the beat changed.

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Structuring mechanism

“Rhythmic entertainment can serve as a structuring mechanism for social adaptation, specifically eye looking, in both autistic and typically developing infants,” Dr. Lense concluded.

The same response applies later in vocal interactions. In typically developing babies, reliance on non-verbal communication decreases as language skills increase, but that is not the case for children with autism.

“We know social communication skills are impacted by and reflected in rhythm and timing. This might be an inroad we can work on, an actionable mechanism for development in autism,” Dr. Lense said, adding that, “rhythmic predictability is an inherent component of evidence-based intervention for young autistic children.”

Enlisting parents

One approach, she said, might be to teach parents to engage their children in everyday activities with song, following the steps of the PRESS-Play model, which are:

  • Use songs that are predictable
  • Try musical activities that reinforce the behavior
  • Plan musical activities that are important for emotional regulation
  • Try musical activities as shared attention
  • Use musical activities as social play

“These musical activities are also important for the play partner, helping parents learn important skills,” Dr. Lense said. “We can teach parents to support their child’s social engagement and communication through musical games and songs, working them into everyday interactions.”