Rhythm Perception in Music By Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have demonstrated strength in perceiving musical stimuli, with most studies focusing on pitch and melody perception and memory (Heaton, 2009). Few studies have assessed musical rhythm perception of individuals with ASD (Lim, 2009; DePape, Hall, Tillmann, & Trainor, 2012) and found typical performance when processing and producing simple and complex rhythms, which seems associated with visual perceptual skills (DePape et al., 2012). However, rhythm perception has not been investigated in relation to ASD symptomology. Further, previous studies have focused on individuals with high cognitive functioning. Thus, the relationship between rhythm perception, ASD symptomology, and cognitive skills remains to be investigated across levels of functioning.
The purpose of this research is to assess whether ASD symptomology is related to musical rhythm perception and to examine the influence of varying levels of cognitive functioning on performance of a music rhythms task.
Twenty-seven adolescents older than 12 years old with ASD and varying levels of cognitive functioning (WISC-V Visual Comprehension Index: 45-111; Visual Spatial Index: 57-144) completed a rhythms perception task: an adapted version of the Beat Alignment Test (Iversen & Patel, 2008). Participants listened to short musical excerpts with overlaid beeps (on or off the musical beat) and identified whether the beeps matched the musical beat. Performance was analysed by calculating Hits (number of correct responses for off beat trials/number of off beat trials) minus False Alarms (number of incorrect responses for on beat trials/ number of on beat trials) (HiFA as per Tillman, Schulze, & Foxton, 2009). Teachers completed the Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2, Constantino, 2012) questionnaire as a measure of ASD symptomology.
The participants’ performance, based on HiFA, was significantly better than chance, p<.01. A regression analysis revealed that VSI but not VCI predicted task performance. Regression coefficients indicated that individuals with a lower VSI score performed the Beat Alignment Test less accurately than those with a higher VSI score, p<.01. A regression also showed that scores on the SRS-2 Social Motivation Scale predicted performance on the Beat Alignment Test, such that higher difficulties in social motivation resulted in less accurate performance, p<.05.
Our results are consistent with previous findings showing preserved rhythm perception for individuals with ASD, and that this ability is related to visual spatial skills. Given previous reports of musical strengths, we suggest music intervention including a rhythmic component as a strength-based approach for this population. Our results support previous research showing that there is a perceptual association between auditory rhythm and visual spatial frequency in the typical population (Sherman, Grabowecky, & Suzuki, 2013). These results also suggest that music interventions should be approached differently when working with individuals with ASD that have varying symptomology and lower cognitive skills compared to those with higher cognitive skills, particularly in terms of visual spatial skills. The current findings could also help guide the development of music interventions that target cognitive functioning; for example improving rhythmic skills may be associated with improvement in visual spatial abilities.