Music as a Tool for Building Verbal Communication in Students on the Autism Spectrum
Since 2013, GITC educators have been exploring the strong connections between singing, playing ukuleles, and classroom music making in students with minimal verbal skills. It isn't unusual for kids with sensory integration disorders to have difficulty in this area. But when we started hearing from GITC trained teachers that their autistic students had suddenly experienced miraculous break-throughs as a direct result of singing each day, we started looking for research to help us understand why. We also spoke with the students themselves about what had helped them move from silence to speaking in their GITC classrooms.
Then in July, we invited music therapist Julie Guy of the Music Therapy Center of California to present a lecture and demonstration at our first adaptive music conference for special educators. This is a full length video of her excellent presentation!
As it turns out, music therapists have known for quite sometime that music when used strategically can be exceptionally helpful in quite a number of ways. Whether music is used to calm someone who is distressed, or to shift attention away from something disturbing and refocus a student on a pleasing set of musical sounds and patterns, it can bring relief.
But what is it about songs themselves that can help non-verbal or low-verbal learners break the silence? At GITC, we have a lot of experience but have yet to see research that proves out what we see with our own eyes and hear with our ears. We hope to be involved in such research one day. But the bottom line is this;
1. Music is a form of organized sound. It makes sense out of chaos. The rhythm patterns are repetitive and they regulate time; the melodies engage the ears and capture attention, and these are also repetitive. So for a student who is sound-sensitive and overwhelmed, when their inner environment becomes painfully chaotic, a song can offer relief. It can impart order, predictability and peace into an ocean of noise.
2. Songs insert language into that rhythmic pulse and melodic contour. In simple folk songs, certain words occur often, especially in the choruses of songs. These "high frequency words" come at predictable moments and allow students to anticipate their occurrence each time. We think this becomes a form of brain training that naturally builds vocabulary. More than that, the predictability and practice of these high frequency words instills confidence in the student, bolstering their sense of control. When they have heard the song enough times, it is embedded in their memories and they find they are able to recite language accurately.
3. Audiation is the act of hearing music in one's own mind without physically listening to it from an outside source. When we memorize a piece of music or a song, we can listen in the privacy of our own minds without hearing the music performed live or through external media. We own it! For a student with minimal verbal skills to be in a singing classroom, they hear certain songs at school many times. When they leave school, the songs stay with them. This unconscious and perhaps involuntary practice of songs (or "earworms") may be "silent singing" for a while, but for some kids, a break through happens when they suddenly find themselves opening their mouths and letting the music out.
Our founder interviewed one child who spoke for the first time in 3rd grade. She asked the girl what had prompted her to begin to speak. The child responded that she discovered that she liked the sound of her singing voice. When our founder asked how she knew that, the girl answered that she had started humming along in class. No one else could hear her, but SHE could. From that experience, she began to sing words, and in time, to allow others to hear her. Once she could manage this, she simply made a transition to speaking.
4. We believe that adding an accompaniment instrument to singing, especially a rhythmic one like guitar or ukulele, brings a great deal of support to the singing process and may speed the acquisition of verbal skills. Why? The ukulele and guitar provide a set of guiding pitches with a strong tonal root. The young singer can rely on these pitches to frame the notes in a song and offer musical steps on the melodic ladder. If you can hear the difference between low and high, and from there interpret the sequence of pitches between them, you have a musical framework. You can train your ear to hear the differences and your voice to match them. It just takes repetition, listening and time.
We are also pretty certain that strumming these instruments regulates the body's involuntary actions such as heart rate and breathing. Some studies show that music has the power to decrease stress by slowing down the heart rate. If you strum strings to a steady beat and sing in a way that locks into it, you may be improving your mental health by generating brain chemicals that elevate the spirit and give a sense of joy and satisfaction. We are sure these things deserve study.
So while we see all of this going on with students, we cannot provide conclusive research about it- yet. But we can share with you a few articles about work being done in the field along these lines- or related ones. Please take a few minutes to check them out.
First, please have a look at this article. It first appeared in the 2016, volume 4 issue of ARI's Autism Research Review International newsletter.
"AMMT (technique called Auditory-Motor Mapping Training) combines “sung” speech with the use of specially tuned drums in order to build new connections in the brain. In the procedure, a therapist sings two-syllable words or phrases, using a different pitch for each syllable, while simultaneously tapping on a drum tuned to the same two pitches. Children first listen and then participate in speaking and drumming. The final goal is for the children to produce the words or phrases independently." https://www.autism.com/speech_training
Next, please have a look at the amazing research coming from Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. Dr. Nina Kraus and her team have been studying the role of music in reading for many years and her studies are easy to digest through excellent video presentations. http://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu/. One visit to their homepage gives you access to a feast of important studies.
We will be adding more articles over the coming weeks to share with anyone interested in the role of music in supporting students with minimal verbal skills to learn to express themselves more comfortably and expressively. If you have articles you wish to send us to add to the list, please drop our executive director a line!
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