A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

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

Winter, 2018 | Number 1, Volume 32

Songs, familiar stories may promote better eye contact

Songs and familiar stories may help children with autism to initiate and maintain eye contact with others, a new study suggests. 

Grace Thompson and colleagues comment, “Earlier studies indicate that music is alluring to children with autism, with many preferring music over other stimuli. Further, studies examining fMRI data from children with autism suggest that songs more effectively engage the functional systems within the brain that process both speech and song.” 

Thus, the researchers hypothesized that young children with autism might engage visually with a person singing a song to a greater degree than with a person reading a story. In addition, they predicted that familiarity with a story would improve children’s visual attention. 

The researchers recruited 16 children with autism, ranging from 7 to 10 years of age, for their study. They selected a familiar and preferred song and story for each child, based on parental reports. They also composed an original song and an original story to present to the children. 

Each child watched four one-minute videos in which a research assistant either sang the familiar song, read the familiar story, sang the unfamiliar song, or read the unfamiliar story. The research assistant played bongos during the songs and held a storybook during the stories. 

Analyzing the children’s number of eye fixations and how long their eyes dwelled on targets, the researchers found that “children were significantly more likely to look at the performer’s face and body and less at the prop [the bongos or story book] during singing than storytelling and when familiar rather than unfamiliar material was presented.” 

They conclude, “Caregivers, educators, and therapists can powerfully create a more positive social feedback loop that promotes greater social bonds, pleasure in social interaction, and general social orienting by incorporating naturally motivating play activities  such as songs (both familiar and novel) and increasing the child’s repertoire of familiar activities (such as story books).”


“Fostering spontaneous visual attention in children on the autism spectrum: a proof-of-concept study comparing singing and speech,” G. A. Thompson and L. A. Abel, Autism Research, January 22, 2018 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Grace Thompson, University of Melbourne, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, 234 St. Kilda Road, Southbank, VIC 3006, Australia, [email protected].