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Music has the power to move all of us and provide benefits to children with ASD.

Do you remember the song “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands? What about “Head Shoulders, Knees and Toes”?

These songs are commonly enjoyed by preschool children across North America, but why are they useful? Well, first of all these simple little activities often bring a smile to children’s faces, and unifies a group, yielding a social benefit. They link movement with words, yielding a language benefit. Without any preamble or lengthy instruction, they also manage to inspire movement, even from young children, yielding a movement benefit.

Simply put, music has the power to move us.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to describe a group of disorders of brain development that are often diagnosed in early childhood. Children with ASD may have a range of difficulties in social, language, and movement skills. Three abilities that are separate and distinct in many ways but are the exact ability areas that can be affected by music.

Recent reports show 1 in 45 children are currently diagnosed with ASD. The number of children affected has increased dramatically over the past decade. It is well documented that early interventions are the most effective treatments. Yet, with so many new cases of ASD discovered each year, many families are left on waiting lists for long periods of time to receive the help their children need. There is a clear need to find age appropriate evidenced based interventions for children with ASD. Fun interventions that can be incorporated into group and community settings are an ideal way to reach more children efficiently.

Despite the identified challenges that children with ASD experience, there are some interesting skills that are commonly observed in these children. One noteworthy skill is the perception of pitch and emotional impact in music. Researchers have found that many children with ASD accurately sense emotion that is portrayed through music even though they have trouble distinguishing emotions communicated through speech. Music has been proven effective for speech, language and motor development in many people with brain impairments that affect motor skill. So music may also affect positive outcomes for children with ASD.

I recently conducted a study through the UOIT Motor Behaviour Lab under the direction of Dr. Meghann Lloyd. In our study, we paired age appropriate music with movement activities, to see if it the music would motivate children with ASD to engage in movement exercises with their peers. We watched to see whether this participation would improve the children’s motor and social communication skills.

Our study was a randomized control trial including children​ aged 4 to 6 years of age with ASD. The children were divided into 2 groups. One group participated in a specialized music and movement program, the second participated in essentially the same movement intervention but without music. The children participated in 12 sessions over six weeks lasting 45 minutes each. We compared the movement and social skill outcomes at the end of the intervention between the two groups. The results were very encouraging. We found that the children who participated in the music and movement intervention were much more engaged during class time, their fundamental movement skills were greatly improved, and even their behaviours at home and school outside of the intervention times were significantly better. The children who participated in the movement only intervention also improved their movement skills however, their “off task” behaviors and occasional outbursts both during the intervention and at home and school did not improve.

Our small study supported the use of specialized music with movement activities as an effective movement intervention, improving the gross motor and social skills of young children with ASD, and demonstrated that combining music and movement is a fun and effective way for children with ASD to connect with the world around them. I look forward to sharing tips, tricks and resources to help you harness the power of music to enhance the movement activities that you prepare for the children that you care for.


Keri-Ellen Walcer MHSc. R. Kin, is the founder of MusiGo Inc.

Her work in the field of children's fitness began over 15 years ago. She has created live musical fitness experiences for kids that have been used in daycares, community centers, concert halls and television appearances. She has also conducted original research under the direction of Dr. Meghann Lloyd, examining the use of music to improve the movement skills of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Keri-Ellen is a professor of Recreation and Leisure at Durham College and has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Ontario institute of Technology. She is excited to share her expertise in children's fitness with other professionals in childcare, therapeutic and education settings. Check out for more information and e-learning tools for caregivers in late fall 2017!

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