People and Community Research

How we can help children with autism socialize using their natural rhythmic abilities

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

Imagine children on a playground tossing a ball back and forth, playing hand clapping games, sharing game pieces,and chasing each other in a game of tag. Now take a closer look and notice how each child moves at their own pace and has coordinated movements to effortlessly engage with other children. 

On the same playground, now notice children with autism who appear clumsy and not interacting with others. 

Autism is a prevalent developmental disorder that currently affects one in 44 children in the United States. Ahallmark feature of the diagnosis is social difficulties, such as lack of turn-taking and initiating social interaction.Some factors that contribute to social difficulties in children with autism are motor differences, such as delayedcoordination and poor balance. If motor skills are not addressed in children with autism, they may miss social cues, have challenges in school, and difficulty becoming independent, which could result in isolation and negativelyimpact their mental health. As such, research that explores timing of movements to design interventions may helpchildren with autism with their social skills. 

As a music therapist and martial artist, my previous research used rhythmic cues to facilitate the timing, direction,and muscle effort needed for martial arts movements to improve motor skills in 7- to 12-year-old children with autism. Through repetitious and systematic physical training, martial arts movements provide opportunity to work onmotor skills. After eight 30-minute rhythm and martial arts sessions, the children demonstrated significantly improvedgross motor skills, particularly balance and bilateral coordination. At the beginning of the study, the children tested at a 5-year 8 months age equivalency for bilateral coordination. After four weeks, the children’s scores improved to 6-years 9 months age equivalency, essentially over a 1-year gain in bilateral coordination. 

My previous research informs my current research to study what the internal movement tempo, also known as spontaneous motor tempo (SMT), is in children with autism and their ability to sync, or “entrain,” their body with an external rhythm. Some research shows that children with autism can entrain finger and hand taps to align with rhythm while other research shows they have difficulty entraining whole body movements to rhythm. Two studies report that SMT of children with autism is about 30 percent faster orslower compared to neurotypical children. If SMT falls outside the expected range for age, the difference couldmean interference in their auditory, motor, or nervous systems, or connections between the systems, indicating motor differences. To date, no published studies have been found that examined SMT and ability to entrain to SMT in children with autism. Moreover, SMT ranges of children with autism, or whether they can entrain to changes to their SMT, are unknown. More research examining SMT and ability to entrain to rhythm to devise motor interventions for children with autism is needed. 

Auditory rhythm provides structure for timing of movements to enhance and optimize movement function. Whenlistening to rhythm, the body naturally moves in response to the rhythm’s pace, a process known as “rhythmicentrainment,” in which rhythm primes and drives the movement’s timing and motor

responses follow the dynamics of the rhythm over time. For example, an individual walking down the street hearing loud bass from a car driving by will subconsciously begin to walk to the bass’s beat.

Changing the pace of the rhythm will change the timing of the person’s movement because we are born with the ability to efficiently sense regular and predictable intervals in rhythm and will innately adjust our movement to match a rhythm. Humans are rhythmic beings, from the beating of our heart to respiration, and we canperceive rhythmic stimuli even below a conscious level. We perform better moving to a rhythm that matches ourSMT. In other words, rhythmic entrainment works best when a tempo is provided at an individual’s SMT. 

Rhythmic entrainment can be used as a therapeutic intervention to address motor skills. For example, music therapists use rhythmic entrainment to improve timing of walking and precise arm movements in individuals with stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, and brain injury. Rhythmic entrainment interventionworks because listening to rhythm and executing motor movements utilize the same brain areas (e.g., cerebellum, basal ganglia) involved in rhythmic entrainment. In the same way, using rhythm as a timingstructure can exercise and strengthen the neural connections needed to promote motor skills in children with autism.

To support the development of social skills in children with autism, more studies are needed to determine their SMT and rhythmic entrainment abilities to guide rhythm and movement interventions. This therapeutic intervention will enable children with autism to better engage with family, peers, and individuals in the community and not live a life that is separate from others. 

Hilary Yip is a graduate student in the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”