A new technique that may help non-verbal autistic children to say their first words has been developed by researchers.
Known as Auditory-Motor Mapping Training (AMMT), the novel treatment developed by researchers from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) builds on the observations that children with autism, who typically struggle with communication, as well as social interactions, often respond positively to music.
"Communication deficits are one of the core symptoms of autism," Catherine Wan, first author of the study, said.
"It has been estimated that up to 25 percent of all children with autism are nonverbal, but surprisingly, not much is out there treatment-wise that directly helps these children to speak," she said.
The AMMT treatment uses a combination of singing (intonation) and motor activities to strengthen a network of brain regions that is thought to be abnormal in children with autism.
"We developed AMMT, in part, because another intonation-based therapy, known as Melodic Intonation Therapy, had been successful in helping stroke patients with aphasia recover their ability to speak," Gottfried Schlaug, senior author of the study, said.
After eight weeks of AMMT treatment (five days per week), the six children in the proof-of-concept study, who ranged in age from six to nine and were previously completely nonverbal, were able to approximate whole words and phrases.
The children could also generalize their speech production to words that were not practiced during the therapy.
"Noticeable improvements in speech were seen as early as two weeks into the treatment," Wan said.
"More importantly, the improvements lasted as long as two months after the treatment sessions ended," she added.
The study has been published in the journal PLoS One.