New Music Therapy research for children with autism spectrum disorder

Published: 18 June 2015 at 10:43

A young boy playing with hand cymbals

Anglia Ruskin and Imperial College London researchers lead the UK arm of TIME-A, an international randomised control trial of improvisational music's effectiveness for children with autism spectrum disorders.

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Music therapy has been used successfully with children with autism for many decades, but more systematic evidence is needed to establish how it benefits children so that it can be widely available for all. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin, Imperial College London, and 11 research sites throughout the world, led by the Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Centre in Bergen, Norway, are working to address this. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) awarded a large grant for this research, £200,000 of which was secured for research at Anglia Ruskin by our Music Therapy team. With the support of the NIHR, Anglia Ruskin, NHS trusts and schools, our researchers and those at Imperial College London are leading the UK arm of TIME-A, an international randomised control trial of improvisational music's effectiveness for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Improvisational music therapy is a form of music therapy that focuses on improvised music, created by the child and the therapist. This can be through singing and/or instrumental improvisation, and tailors each session to the child's musical strengths and preferences. Music therapy is based on forming a child-therapist relationship through the enjoyable sharing of music and is an accessible mode of communication. The therapist is closely attuned to the child's music and responds in a way that encourages further communication.

Additionally, music-making is a fun and rewarding way to encourage creativity and imagination, and children can often move away from ritualistic use of instruments to a more flexible and creative playing style, which can lead to less rigid thought and behaviour patterns outside the music therapy environment. Through collaborative interaction, communication and creativity, improvisational music therapy addresses three key aspects of autism spectrum disorders: social interaction, communication and imagination.

The researchers aim to recruit 50 participants by the autumn, and are currently working closely with schools in Cambridgeshire and Essex. Children in the study complete a short, play-based assessment (the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, ADOS) at zero, two, five and 12 months following enrolment. Upon completion of the baseline ADOS, children are randomly allocated a treatment group: standard care (no music therapy), low-intensity music therapy (one 30-minute session per week for five months), or high-intensity music therapy (three 30-minute sessions per week for five months). The follow-up ADOS assessments will be completed by a researcher blind to treatment status, and the treatment groups' outcomes will be compared to gauge music therapy's effectiveness, and whether the 'dosage' of music therapy has a noticeable effect on participant progress.

The Music Therapy team within our Department of Music and Performing Arts includes Helen Odell-Miller (Principal Investigator), Amelia Oldfield (Clinical Supervisor), Sarah Faber (Research Assistant), and Alexandra Georgaki (Music Therapist). The project is having an impact on children, families and schools, whose enthusiasm and dedication make this research possible. The TIME-A study is capturing global attention, and project outcomes will result in publications, impacting future REF outputs and building on the existing profile of our Music for Health Research Centre.

To find out more, please contact Professor Odell-Miller or Sarah Faber.