Effects of a Classroom-Based Music Therapy Model on Social Skills for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Saturday, May 13, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
L. DeMoss1, P. Scarbrough1, Y. White2, C. Ripple1, L. Schmid1, J. Riggsbee3, J. Witcher Lahiff2 and G. Dawson4, (1)Social Science Research Institute, Duke University, Durham, NC, (2)Voices Together, Durham, NC, (3)Program in Education, Duke University, Durham, NC, (4)Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC
Background: Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and related developmental disabilities have marked deficits in social and communication skills, which can broadly impact their ability to participate in academic and social activities at school. Music therapy is an increasingly popular intervention for children with ASD, and research evidence supporting its effectiveness is growing. In multiple intervention studies, music therapy produced greater results than standard care with respect to social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and social-emotional reciprocity. Additionally, a recent study found that for people with ASD, the areas of the brain that process both speech and song are more effectively engaged during song than during speech. This suggests that musical interaction techniques may provide a promising approach for teaching language and communication. The Voices Together® program is a classroom-based music therapy model that utilizes a structured, non-directive approach to teach communication and social-emotional skills. A preliminary study on weekly sessions of Voices Together® demonstrated improvements in verbal responsiveness over a period of 15 weeks.

Objectives:  To identify the effect of a specialized music therapy program, Voices Together®, on communication and social-emotional skills in children with ASD.

Methods:  Sixty-four students were recruited to participate from nine elementary school classrooms for children with ASD. All students completed a clinician-administered set of 20 prompts focused on communication and social-emotional adjustment at three baseline time points before treatment began. Trained music therapists then offered the Voices Together® intervention for 45 minutes, once a week, for 16 weeks. Students completed the same set of prompts during three treatment time points. In addition, teachers completed the PDD Behavior Inventory (PDDBI) for each student before treatment began and at its conclusion.

Results: Paired t-tests between baseline and treatment indicate statistically significant differences between prompt scores at Baseline 2 (M=29.37) and Treatment 2 (M=32.70), t(49) = 3.48, p<0.05, and between Baseline 3 (M=31.05) and Treatment 3 (M=32.96), t(53) = 2.89, p<0.05, with Treatment scores being higher than Baseline scores. Additionally, paired t-tests of pre- and post- PDDBI assessments indicated a significant decrease in social pragmatic problems (Mpre = 14.02, Mpost = 11.97; t(52) = 2.08, p < 0.05), and a significant increase in expressive language (Mpre = 52.08, Mpost= 55.31; t(52)= 2.45, p < 0.05).

Conclusions:  While participating in Voices Together® music therapy, students’ scores on a set of prompts designed to address communication and social-emotional skills increased more than during the non-treatment period. These differences suggest that participation in the music therapy program produced an effect over and above general learning and variability within the measure. Students’ improvement in communication and social-emotional skills is further supported by the overall decrease in social pragmatic problems and increase in expressive language suggested by the PDDBI. Understanding the specific outcomes of classroom-based music therapy programs like Voices Together® provides further insight into the clinical application of music therapy techniques for the ASD pediatric population.