Rhythm, Movement and Autism Research | Tuned in to Learning

Rhythm, Movement and Autism

A recent March 2013 article published in the journal “Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience” reviews research related to movement and autism and proposes a rationale for how rhythmic input can improve sensorimotor functioning and overall growth in areas such as cognition, behavior, social skills, and communication.

What is the connection between rhythm, movement, and autism?

Board Certified Music Therapists Michelle W. Hardy and A. Blythe LaGasse published an exciting new hypothesis and theory article discussing the potential of rhythm to benefit those on the autism spectrum.  Their article “Rhythm, movement, and autism: using rhythmic rehabilitation research as a model for autism.” grew out of the work being done at the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University.  From CBRM, the brain and research-based approach to music therapy, called “Neurologic Music Therapy” was born.  Download the full article at this link. 

Blythe and Michelle have extensive experience as Neurologic Music Therapists working with individuals with autism and have been able to tie their clinical experiences with a wealth of research to support this burgeoning model of a rhythm-based approach to music therapy for autism.

Neurologic Music Therapy Drumming and Rhythm | Tuned in to Learning

Can Autism Be Viewed as a Motor Disorder?

The article keenly points out that although the diagnostic criteria for autism is focused on social, communicative, and restricted/repetitive behavioral symptoms, there is also a body of research that describes movement impairments as part of the extended profile of autism.  Because movement is critical to many areas of functioning, Blythe and Michelle hypothesize that the well documented benefits of rhythm in motor rehabilitation could also be effective for individuals with autism.  Because the majority of rhythmic rehabilitation studies focus on populations such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury, more specific research is needed to directly show the impact these techniques would have on individuals with autism.

Rhythm in Rehabilitation and Therapy

Of primary interest is that rhythm can have a profound impact on our motor functioning, even after brain damage has occurs. Our bodies intrinsically respond to rhythm on a subconscious level.  For example, a patient with Parkinson’s disease who may not respond to verbal cues to help alter their pacing and stability when walking, can automatically ‘entrain’ or synchronize their movements to a rhythmic beat.  Music therapists and physical therapists often work together to select an appropriate starting tempo/speed for the patient to walk with initially, and gradually speed up or slow down this speed to bring the patient’s walking pace or gait to a more functional level.

Betsy Hartman and Vanessa Contopulos- Neurologic Music Therapy

How Could Rhythm Help Individuals with Autism?

It is proposed in the article that this rhythmic synchronization process that occurs on a subconscious level could also be utilized to help anticipate, prepare for, predict, and organize movement while also increasing movement efficiency, fluency, and accuracy. Given various studies citing deficits in motor planning, latency of movement, and anticipation in autism, the use of rhythm provides an intriguing in-road to helping our students better automatic and internally control their motor responses.  In addition, research from the fields of music perception and music therapy show that music is a processing strength and effective therapeutic intervention for autism.

Michelle and Blythe are careful to note that therapeutic rhythmic techniques are “not simply listening to rhythms, rather interventions involve the application of rhythm at a tempo appropriate for facilitating a movement pattern or increasing motor stability” They provide further information about the field of Neurologic Music Therapy, which is implemented by a Board Certified Music Therapist.

We look forward to hearing more from Blythe and Michelle on this exciting research topic. It has great implications for our students!

Please consult directly with a music therapist if you are considering a music therapy treatment program for your child or students. We’ve also included some basic tips for how you can experiment with rhythm and see how your child responds.

Autism Rhythm Activities for Home and School

  • Gather photos or word flashcards of common words. Take turns with your child simultaneously playing and tapping the syllables from the word on a drum. This is also fun to do with names, using photos of familiar people.
  • Play a copy cat rhythm game by initiating a simple rhythm on an instrument or using body percussion (clapping, tapping knees) and have your child try and imitate the rhythm.  Switch and let your child be the leader!
  • If you child says something that is difficult to understand or is talking too fast, encourage them to say it again, but this time, either hold their hand and tap with them or tap on their arm a steady slow beat while you say the sentence along with them. After have them try it again with the beat but let them say it independently.

Music Therapy Resources

• Five Tips for Using Music in Therapy for Autism

Tuned in to Learning’s Adapted Dance and Movement CD

• Neurologic Music Therapy Training Institute 

American Music Therapy Association

Certification Board for Music Therapists

Coast Music Therapy  (San Diego IEP-based and school-based music therapy services)