In an earlier post I talked about the main reasons why autistic children benefit from music. In this post I’ll delve deeper into one specific benefit of music toys and musical activities for autistic children: increasing social interaction.

Studies show 3 benefits of music activities and toys, each of which I’ll describe in more detail later in this post. These are

  • Improving attention spans during peer interactions
  • Increasing the number of social play activities with adults
  • Leading to longer moments of happiness and better interpersonal behaviors

The Science

Several studies point out specific benefits that can guide your toy and play activity choices.

1. Special Needs Children Are More Attentive When Music Play Activities are Involved

A study published by Sussman in 2009 showed that preschool children with special needs such as autism play with their schoolmates for longer when there are musical activities incorporated into their playtime.  The study aimed to find out what combinations of play activities kept special needs preschoolers most engaged and attentive, testing nine children aged 2-6. The researchers collected data that showed when the children were attentive and when they weren’t attentive. Their results showed that children were most attentive to their peers when musical objects were used in a play activity!

This finding is very important because the inability to interact with peers is a distinguishing feature of developmental issues. One possible reason why music improves interaction between special needs children may be because it reduces anxiety, making it easier for these kids to interact with each other when they would have trouble communicating using speech.

2. Children Who Attend Music Groups Engage in More Social Play Activities

Another study by Walworth done on infants studied how music activities affect child-adult interactions. The researchers studied the effect of music therapy on infants’ development responses and parents’ responsiveness. Walworth found that infants who attended music therapy groups with their parents showed significantly more social toy play during the parent-infant play sessions than infants who didn’t attend the music therapy groups. Also, parents who attended the music groups engaged in more positive and less negative play behaviors with their infants than parents who didn’t attend the play groups. So music activities can benefit both infants and adults!

3. Autistic Children In Music Therapy Showed Happier Emotions and More Engagement With Others

A study by Wigram and colleagues in 2009 examined the effects of improvisional music therapy on autistic children. Improvisional music therapy is just a fancy term meaning activities where children make up music as they go along. The researchers compared music improvision activities to toy play sessions and found that the music sessions led to longer periods of happiness, emotional connection between therapist and child, and interactions between adult and child than the toy sessions. The study also found that no responses from the child were twice as likely in the toy sessions as in the music therapy.

Summary

Scientific studies of special needs and autistic children seem to support the anecdotal evidence that music play and therapy improves social interactions and behaviors in these children. These can guide your play and toy choices, as I talk about in other posts.

What have your experiences been? Have you and your autistic child tried music therapy lessons or incorporated music toys into your play routines? What have been the results? Please share your thoughts!

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