In June 2009, newspapers reported that archaeologists in Germany had discovered a 35,000-year-old flute made of bird bone. It represented, one paper said, "the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture." And we have been tapping our toes, humming along, singing and dancing ever since. The power of music affects all of us and has long appealed to our emotions. It is for this reason that UCLA researchers are using music to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), for whom understanding emotions is a very difficult task. This inability robs them of the chance to communicate effectively and make friends and can often lead to social isolation and loneliness.
Thanks to a grant from the NAMM Foundation, the trade association of the international music products association, Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity and member of the of the Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance, and colleagues have developed a music education program designed to help children with ASD better understand emotions and learn to recognize emotions in others. "This is a 'naturalistic study,' in that it takes place not in a lab but in the child's classroom at the Help Group's Village Glen School for children with autism, where they are engaged in music-making," Molnar-Szakacs said. Specifically, the children are using a method of music education known as the Orff-Schulwerk approach.
Developed by 20th-century German composer Carl Orff ("schulwerk" is German for schooling), it is a unique approach to music learning that is supported by movement and based on things that kids intuitively like to do, such as sing, chant rhymes, clap, dance and keep a beat or play a rhythm on anything near at hand. Orff called this music and movement activity "elemental" — basic, unsophisticated and concerned with the fundamental building blocks of music. The 12-week program uses elements from the Orff method — including games, instruments and teamwork — and combines them with musical games. The idea is to pair emotional musical excerpts with matching displays of social emotion (happy with happy, sad with sad, etc.) in a social, interactive setting.
"Music is a birthright of all children. To be able to listen and appreciate, sing or participate in music-making are as essential to development as mathematical or linguistic learning," Molnar-Szakacs said. "The purpose of this work is to provide a means for awakening the potential in every child for being 'musical' — that is, to be able to understand and use music and movement as forms of expression and, through that, to develop a recognition and understanding of emotions." In fact, he said, participating in musical activities has the potential to scaffold and enhance all other learning and development, from timing and language to social skills. "Beyond these more concrete intellectual benefits, the extraordinary power of music to trigger memories and emotions and join us together as an emotional, empathic and compassionate humanity are invaluable," Molnar-Szakacs said.
The goal of the research is to evaluate the effect of the music education program on outcomes in social communication and emotional functioning, as well as the children's musical development, according to Molnar-Szakacs. "Hopefully this will be a fun, engaging and cost-effective therapeutic intervention to help children with ASD recognize and understand emotions in daily life interactions," he said. "An improved ability to recognize social emotions will allow these children to form more meaningful social relationships and hopefully greatly improve their quality of life."
Molnar-Szakacs is collaborating on the grant with Elizabeth A. Laugeson, a UCLA clinical instructor of psychiatry and director of the Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance. The alliance is an innovative partnership between the Help Group and the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior that is dedicated to enhancing and expanding clinical research in the education and treatment of ASD and contributing to the development, greater understanding and use of best-practice models by researchers, educators and clinicians. The investigators report no conflicts of interest.
- The NAMM Foundation  is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing active participation in music-making across the lifespan by supporting scientific research, philanthropic giving and public service programs from the international music products industry. The Help Group, founded in 1975, serves children with a wide range of special needs and is the largest and most comprehensive nonprofit of its kind in the United States. Recognized as a leader in the field of autism, it offers extensive special education, therapy and assessment services.
- The Help Group  educates more than 850 students between the ages of 3 and 22 on a daily basis in its highly specialized autism day schools.
- The UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity  has as its mission the study of the molecular, cellular, systems and cognitive mechanisms that result in cognitive enhancements and explain unusual levels of performance in gifted individuals, including extraordinary creativity. It is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.
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