Understanding Children With ASD: How Music Affects Speech

Children with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have atypical development in social communication and social interaction and display restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours. Its symptoms are typically observable in early childhood and vary in severity; every child experiences the neurodevelopmental disorder differently. 

Speech and communication difficulties are one of the primary diagnostic features of ASD. More than 30% of young children with ASD lack the ability to communicate with speech, may have difficulties understanding language in context, and may never develop functional speech. These difficulties exist in a variety of ways, different for each child. Some may struggle with stuttering, cluttering, inserting another sound in the middle of the word, or extending end sounds of words. Some others struggle with gesturing.

Speech Development Starts from Preverbal Communication

Gesturing is a form of nonverbal communication which makes up presymbolic communication. Presymbolic communication is essential for the development of symbolic communication and speech in future. Young children must master this nonverbal communication system to interact and participate in social environments. 

In the first years of their lives, children use gestures or sound to communicate and interact with the people around them intentionally. It allows infants and young children to communicate before developing spoken language. Using gestures in the early years aids the development of receptive and expressive language in typically developing children. When children draw their parents’ attention to an object (joint attention) by pointing to it, it allows parents to name or translate that gesture into words. This process facilitates the development of the child’s vocabulary.

Children with ASD have reduced use of deictic and conventional gestures. In fact, gesture deficits are one of the first visible signs of social communication impairments in children who are later diagnosed with ASD. Deictic gestures refer to hand or body movements used to get attention or communicate in the immediate environment. It includes gestures such as pointing, showing, giving, and reaching. Whereas conventional gestures refer to those that have defined meanings such as nodding head for ‘yes’ and waving for ‘bye’. The lack of gestures in children with ASD leads to a slower development of receptive and expressive language, and vocabulary in their early years.

The Role of Music In Speech Development

Music is seen to be an effective medium that supports the development of speech in children with ASD. Language and music share many similarities, such as rhythm, pitch, melody, harmony, form, tempo, timbre, and dynamics. They also undergo similar perceptual processes in our brains; our brains process pitch in music and prosodic cues in speech via the same auditory perceptual process. This happens because the brain perceives patterns in language and music as similar organised and structured patterns, and then  processes them in the higher cognitive channels. 

However, children with ASD may have abnormal auditory-cortical activation, resulting in dysfunction of specific regions that specialise in processing spoken words and integrating complex sounds. Surprisingly, it does not affect their ability to perceive and produce complex sounds in music. In fact, studies find that some people with ASD show exceptional musical abilities, including extraordinary increased musical sensitivity and musical memory pitch.  

Music has the potential to promote preverbal communication, early vocalisations (babbling), social gestures, as well as social interactions in young children with ASD. Researchers found that music therapy interventions and singing directives (instead of speaking them) scored higher on measures of social responsive behaviours and gestures that make up preverbal communication, such as having eye contact, turn-taking, and imitation. 

Music can also affect verbal production. In a study of the efficacy of a music-based language learning game, participants played with the online game for two weeks, and their verbal production of target words was measured. The pre and post-training results show significant improvement in the verbalisation of those target words. This study suggests that the music-based learning game effectively increases vocabulary acquisition and speech production in children with ASD.

The researchers also observed that music improves attention, motivation, and short-term memory in children with ASD. Even the simple act of singing a book instead of reading one increased social attention and engagement in children with ASD. For these reasons, music proves to be an effective and engaging medium that allows communication to unfold.

Auditory Rhythm and Speech

Besides atypical neurodevelopment, a growing body of research suggests that early motor dysfunction strongly predicts ASD in children. Interestingly, music can affect the body’s motor system through the rhythm we hear. Our bodies have an auditory system with a well-distributed fibre connection from the spinal cord, brain stem, subcortical, and cortical levels, to the motor centres. This connectivity allows the motor system to respond and synchronise to external rhythms like music. Through this connectivity, music and rhythm-based interventions can be used to prime and reprogram the motor system. 

Auditory rhythm also has a direct effect on speech. In an initial proof-of-concept study, children with ASD participated in an Auditory Motor Mapping Training where the therapist introduced a target word or phrase by singing the words and tapping the drums simultaneously. Afterwhich, the target word or phrase would be repeated by the child independently. Researchers identified motor activity (tapping on the drum) and intonation as two critical components of this intervention. At the end of the intervention, results show that the children’s ability to articulate words and phrases improved significantly. This study implies that auditory-motor training may be effective in facilitating speech production. 

Pitch Contours and Speech 

Besides rhythm, pitch is another feature found in both language and music. In music, it is an essential attribute in processing chords and melodies. While in speech, pitch provides prosodic cues. For example, a rising pitch contour signifies asking a question, while a falling pitch contour is associated with a statement. In some languages, like Mandarin, variations in pitch are used to differentiate the meaning of words.

Many children with ASD may lack a prosodic understanding of language, but they can imitate patterns and prosody in music. They struggle with pitch-mediated speech processing skills, which makes the typical understanding, learning, and discriminating nuances in a language challenging. So children with ASD rely on their abilities to perceive and produce patterns for language and speech development.

Using Music to Support Speech Development

Music is an essential component of early childhood that can improve various preverbal, verbal, and language conditions for children with ASD. Since children with ASD have atypical neurodevelopment and diverse learning needs, speech and language cannot be developed by relying on typical methods alone. Music, on the other hand, allows learning through their intact musical processing skills and natural abilities to perceive patterns.

Children with ASD perceive music and language patterns in similar ways, but they lack pitch-mediated speech-processing skills. So using similar features of music and language, such as rhythm and pitch, can support them in learning speech and language. Not only is it an age and stage-appropriate medium, but it is also an engaging and effective one, with the flexibility to scaffold the learning experiences of children with ASD.

Other articles about Understanding Children with ASD:


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2022

Janzen, T. B., & Thaut, M. H. (2018). Rethinking the role of music in the neurodevelopment of autism spectrum disorder. Music & Science, 1. https://doi.org/10.1177/2059204318769639

Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2009). Emotional, motivational and interpersonal responsiveness of children with autism in improvisational music therapy. Autism, 13(4), 389–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361309105660

Manwaring, S. S., Stevens, A. L., Mowdood, A., & Lackey, M. (2018). A scoping review of deictic gesture use in toddlers with or at-risk for autism spectrum disorder. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments, 3. https://doi.org/10.1177/2396941517751891

Manwaring, S. S., Swineford, L., Mead, D. L., Yeh, C.-C., Zhang, Y., & Thurm, A. (2019). The gesture–language association over time in toddlers with and without language delays. Autism & Developmental Language Impairments, 4. https://doi.org/10.1177/2396941519845545

National Autistic Society. (n.d.). Autism and speech. Retrieved October 16, 2022

Lim, H. A., Ellis, E. M., & Sonnenschein, D. (2022). Effect of Sing and Speak 4 Kids: An Online Music-Based Speech and Language Learning Game for Children in Early Intervention. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 38(2), 180–196. https://doi.org/10.1177/02656590221080308

Liu, T., Schultz, B. G., Dai, D., Liu, C., & Lense, M. D. (2022). Parent-child nonverbal engagement during read versus sung book-sharing in preschoolers with and without ASD. Psychology of Music, 50(6), 1721–1739. https://doi.org/10.1177/03057356211058781

Vaiouli, P., & Andreou, G. (2018). Communication and Language Development of Young Children With Autism: A Review of Research in Music. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 39(2), 323–329. https://doi.org/10.1177/1525740117705117

Wang, L., Ong, J. H., Ponsot, E., Hou, Q., Jiang, C., & Liu, F. (2022). Mental representations of speech and musical pitch contours reveal a diversity of profiles in autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221111207

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