A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2018 | Number 4, Volume 32

Adding music to therapy sessions may improve social communication, change the brain

Incorporating music into speech therapy for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may enhance social communication and change functional connectivity in the brain, according to a new study. 

In the study, Megha Sharda and colleagues randomized 51 young children, 6 to 12 years of age, to 8 to 12 weeks of music-based or non-music intervention. The music-based intervention incorporated musical instruments, songs, and rhythmic cues into activities designed to encourage reciprocal interaction. Children in the control group worked with the same therapist and did similar activities but without any musical component. Before and after the interventions, researchers assessed the children’s social communication skills and performed MRI scans to measure their resting-stage functional connectivity within Frontotemporal brain networks. 

The researchers report, “Communication scores were higher in the music group post-intervention.” In addition, they say, “Associated post-intervention resting state brain functional connectivity was greater in music vs. non-music groups between auditory and subcortical regions and auditory and fronto-motor regions.” In contrast, connections between auditory and visual regions—an area that is “over-connected” in autism—were lower in the music group compared to the non-music group. Finally, the researchers note, “Post-intervention brain connectivity in the music group was related to communication improvement.” 

The researchers say their findings are in line with previous research on music and ASD. “Strengths in music processing have been noted since the first description of ASD,” they say, “and many studies have reported intact or enhanced musical skills such as absolute pitch, enhanced melodic memory, and contour-processing [identifying patterns of rises and falls] in children with ASD. Greater brain responses to song versus speech in Frontotemporal brain regions and intact emotional responsiveness to music have also been demonstrated. Supporting anecdotal reports from parents and caregivers have described the profound effects music has had on children with ASD.” 

The researchers conclude, “This study provides the first evidence that 8–12 weeks of individual music intervention can indeed improve social communication and functional brain connectivity, lending support to further investigations of neurobiologically motivated models of music interventions in autism.”


“Music improves social communication and auditory-motor connectivity in children with autism,” Megha Sharda, Carola Tuerk, Rakhee Chowdhury, Kevin Jamey, Nicholas Foster, Melanie Custo-Blanch, Melissa Tan, Aparna Nadig, and Krista Hyde, Translational Psychiatry, October 23, 2018 (free online). Address: Megha Sharda, BRAMS, Department of Psychology, University of Montreal, Pavilion Marie-Victorin, 90 Avenue Vincent D’Indy, Montreal, QC H2V 259, Canada, [email protected].