Music Study Seeks Insight Into Emotional Processing in Autism
> 5/9/2008 11:12:21 AM

Parents and educators alike have noted that children with autistic spectrum disorders often display an affinity for music, and researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles will soon take this observed connection between autism and music a step further. In an upcoming study, funded by the GRAMMY Foundation Grant Program, head researcher Dr. Istvan Molnar-Szakacs will use music as a tool for examining how children with autism recognize and process emotions.

While autistic children struggle with deficits in areas of communication, social interactions, and emotional processing, previous studies have shown that they may experience less difficulty perceiving emotions that are embedded within pieces of music. The UCLA researchers plan to study about 15 autistic subjects, aged 10 through 13, in order to discover if they process "musical emotions" differently from social emotions. Autistic children and control subjects will undergo fMRI scans while identifying emotions in facial expressions and musical passages. By examining the brain activity of regions associated with emotional processing, the researchers believe they will gain insight into how autistic children understand emotions as well as the ways in which their emotional processing differs from that of typically developing children. And if music can stimulate the relevant brain areas, they explain, music may also be a useful tool for helping children recognize emotions in other forms of stimuli, especially those that, like facial expressions, inform our social interactions.

Their study should build upon the results of past research into the relationship between music and autism. As Dr. Molnar-Szakacs explained in a press release: "Studies from the early days of autism research have already shown us that music provokes engagement and interest in kids with ASD. More recently, such things as musical memory and pitch abilities in children with ASD have been found to be as good as or better than in typically developing children." This interest in music may explain why autistic children often respond well to music therapy, where a qualified therapist uses music to help children improve specific skills. Therapy sessions often take the form of improvisation between the child and therapist, and research has indicated that these music-based interactions can help children build social skills and communicate more effectively.

For autistic children and their parents, deficits in communication and social skills can significantly impair daily life, but with early treatment, these children can make great progress. The UCLA study will hopefully shed light on how music could be used to better understand the brain processes of autistic children. And as we learn more about the neurological differences associated with autism, we should be able to develop improved therapies for autistic children.

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