Music and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Potential Autonomic Mechanisms of Social Attention Improvement

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Virginia Tech


Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are an urgent health concern as new reports indicate approximately 1 in 110 children are affected by ASD (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). Although children with ASD struggle with social interactions, quantitative meta-analyses have revealed that traditional social skill interventions only produce minimal effects (Bellini, Peters, Benner, & Hopf, 2007). Due to these minimal effects, this study diverged from the common understanding of social skill deficits and introduced an autonomic nervous system circuit as one root of social behavior problems. Children with ASD show a "fight-flight" (i.e., sympathetic) state at baseline and to unfamiliar individuals (e.g., Bal et al., 2010). Research indicates, however, that music has the ability to calm cardiovascular functioning (Iwanaga, Kobayashi, & Kawasaki, 2005) and improve social behaviors in children with ASD (Whipple, 2004). This study recruited participants (N = 23) between 4-7 years old with a previously diagnosed ASD. Each participant was assigned to a Music group, n = 11, or an Audiobook group, n = 12. The 90-minute experimental session consisted of a receptive vocabulary assessment and psychophysiological monitoring during a baseline video, social engagement task, listening period, and a recovery video. A soothed autonomic state was measured by increased high frequency heart rate variability and decreased heart rate. Results indicated a significant soothing effect for the Music group. Moreover, the Music group evidenced a significant increase in social attention (e.g., joint attention and sharing emotions) relative to the Audiobook group. Mediation analyses may reveal partial mediation for the soothed autonomic state on the relationship between group and social attention improvements. Thus, these results suggest that social skill interventions may not be targeting a core element of social deficits (i.e., over-aroused autonomic state).



Music, Autonomic, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Social Attention