Auditory-motor mapping training: Testing an intonation-based spoken language treatment for minimally verbal children with autism spectrum disorder

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We tested an intonation-based speech treatment for minimally verbal children with autism (auditory-motor mapping training, AMMT) against a nonintonation-based control treatment (speech repetition therapy, SRT). AMMT involves singing, rather than speaking, two-syllable words or phrases. In time with each sung syllable, therapist and child tap together on electronic drums tuned to the same pitches, thus coactivating shared auditory and motor neural representations of manual and vocal actions, and mimicking the "babbling and banging" stage of typical development. Fourteen children (three females), aged 5.0-10.8, with a mean Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 score of 22.9 (SD = 2.5) and a mean Kaufman Speech Praxis Test raw score of 12.9 (SD = 13.0) participated in this trial. The main outcome measure was percent syllables approximately correct. Four weeks post-treatment, AMMT resulted in a mean improvement of +12.1 (SE = 3.8) percentage points, compared to +2.8 (SE = 5.7) percentage points for SRT. This between-group difference was associated with a large effect size (Cohen's d = 0.82). Results suggest that simultaneous intonation and bimanual movements presented in a socially engaging milieu are effective factors in AMMT and can create an individualized, interactive music-making environment for spoken-language learning in minimally verbal children with autism.

Keywords: autism; intonation; minimally verbal; music therapy; speech therapy.