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Autistic children prefer rhythm over melody, says study
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Autistic children prefer rhythm over melody, says study

The year-long study conducted at NIMHANS aimed to explore musical preferences of children with autism spectrum disorder
The year-long study conducted at NIMHANS found that autistic children prefer rhythm over melody
Abhishek Maity started taking tabla lessons when he was seven years old

‘What do autistic children prefer when they listen to music? Melody or rhythm?’ That was the question that researchers from National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) addressed in their study. The year-long study (2019-20) was conducted by engaging with caregivers of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The cross-sectional study, published in the January to June, 2023 edition of Industrial Psychiatry Journal, included 120 children diagnosed with ASD. It concluded that most participants (78 or 65 %) preferred rhythm over melody.

The study mentions that its primary objective was to understand the musical preferences of children diagnosed with ASDs in the Indian context. “The secondary objective was to assess the musical practices prevalent in their households along with caregivers’ acceptability of therapy that uses music,” the researchers said.

Children with autism prefer rhythm

Dr John Vijay Sagar, who spearheaded the study, said that the objective was to ascertain music preferences of children with ASD. “It was not a music interventional study. It was conducted to check what these children like and if parents/caregivers are okay with exposing their children to music,” he explained.

Dr Sagar added that this was an exploratory study from the perspective of the caregivers. “Further research is to be done to understand the impact of music intervention therapy in children with ASD,” said Dr Sagar.

Speaking to Happiest Health, Dr Lakshmi Sravanti, child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as principal investigator of the study, said that there is currently little scientific research on benefits of music for children with autism and the existing data, which is mostly from the West, is inadequate. “There is need for further study to establish this scientifically. With further research, we would be able to create a module for music intervention therapy in children with ASD, which is catered to Indian families,” said Dr Sravanti.

“We explored if parents are open to the idea of music therapy, what are the basic music-related practices at home and the child’s response and preference to musical elements,” Dr Sravanti added.

All the findings are based on parents’ response, said Dr Sravanti. Most children (88.3%) responded actively to music, as per the study. This included children who listened intently, sang along, hummed, moved or danced to the tune and tried tapping or drumming on surfaces.

​She added that the caregivers possessed a positive attitude towards the use of music therapy. “However, most of them wish to clarify the scientific basis for the same and that’s what our current and future research focuses on,” said Dr Sravanti.

During the study, the researchers assessed the children’s preference for rhythm and/or melody as they are the most basic components of music. “Rhythm involves beats and time. Melody involves notes and pitch. To analyse rhythm and melody, the parents were asked two questions viz. an objective response question and an open‑ended question to substantiate their answer to the previous question. The final impression was based on both parent’s account and the clinician’s interpretation of the parent’s response to the open‑ended question,” the study stated.

The age of the participants ranged from one and a half to 17 years. The male-to-female ratio was 3:1.

Happiest Health spoke to parents of children with ASD.

Abhishek Maity, a 16-year-old boy from Noida who is mildly autistic and battles attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has been practicing tabla for the last nine years. Speaking to Happiest Health, Maity’s mother Varalakshmi K said that he was very sensitive to sound earlier and got restless with loud noise.

“We noticed a pattern in his activities. He would play with toys by banging them in a specific rhythm. We realised that he had a sense of music and enrolled him for tabla classes when he was seven years old. There is remarkable improvement in his concentration,” says Varalakshmi, who firmly believes that her son loves rhythmic music. The boy who was hesitant earlier has no stage fear now, she says. She adds that the rhythmic music that Maity plays has helped him.

According to Tashneem Chaudhury, mother of a 16-year-old boy with mild autism, each child is different, and it is difficult to put them under one bracket. “Autism is a spectrum disorder and its degree varies in each child. However, they are inclined to music,” said Chaudhury. She recalls that her son had been inclined to music since the age of three years. “My son has an interest in music as well and when he is drumming his fingers, there’s always a rhythm to it,” she said.

Takeaways

  • A recent study conducted in NIMHANS states that autistic children prefer rhythm over melody when it comes to their musical preferences.
  • The study was done based on the responses of the caregivers of children with ASD. It included 120 participants and the age ranged from one and a half to 17 years.
  • Researchers add that further studies are required to create a module for music intervention therapy in children with ASD.

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