For World Autism Awareness Day, Dr Fang Liu, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences writes about how researchers at the University of Reading designed an effective intervention programme to improve speech in autistic children.

Girl with headphones and laptop smiles at mother

Research shows that autistic individuals are more likely to have perfect pitch and prefer music to language, while language delay in autism tends to co-occur with better musical skills. Moreover, neuroimaging studies suggest that music alongside words increases the attention autistic individuals pay to spoken words.

The EU-funded MAP project aimed to devise an effective music-assisted intervention programme for use in a realistic environment to elicit meaningful speech in autistic children with no or few words.

“MAP’s results not only address the autistic community and the immediate and the wider clinical and research field, but also the general public – anyone interested in the intricate link between music, language and the brain,” notes Fang Liu, the project’s principal investigator.

Music-assisted versus traditional treatment results

In the MAP trial, researchers developed a structured training method – music-assisted programmes (MAP) delivered through naturalistic, interactive activities using songs – to teach 36 target words (for example, ‘yes’, ‘mummy’ and ‘please’) to 13 randomly selected autistic children.

A SCIP-I (Social Communication Intervention for Pre-schoolers – Intensive) group with 14 autistic children received speech and language therapy sessions focused on social communication strategies with focused stimulation of these target words.

Both groups undertook 36 training sessions incorporating either SCIP-I or MAP: each lasted 45 minutes twice a week over 18 weeks. Both interventions were mediated by parents at home while being coached by a research speech and language therapist online via video conferencing. Both groups practiced the learning strategies in a 10-minute homework session five times a week. The MAP group was provided with an app featuring 11 songs to facilitate learning of the target words.

Conspicuous improvement of language and behaviour skills

The researchers collected a range of outcome measures at four timepoints: pre-, mid- and post-intervention; and a three-month follow-up. This covered production and understanding of the target words, expressive and receptive vocabulary, adaptive behaviour, social responsiveness, language, social communication and number of participants retained at each timepoint.

Parental reports suggested positive impacts of both interventions on the number of words/phrases understood and the number of words produced by these children. Increased social responsiveness and social initiations were observed in children from the MAP group only. Four of the MAP group and one of the SCIP-I group reached Phase 3 of spoken language development – word combinations.

“In summary, our preliminary results suggest that MAP has the potential to increase the language and social skills of 2-to-5-year-old autistic children with no/few words,” explains Liu. “Through this project, we have made a positive and meaningful impact on these children’s and their families’ lives.”

The results also demonstrated the feasibility of recruiting this population into a randomised controlled trial (RCT), and the MAP had high perceived acceptability as highlighted by parent interviews.

The team looks forward to a fuller trial with a larger sample of participants to establish the efficacy of the MAP intervention and to fulfil the individual needs of autistic children.