After five months, improvised music therapy added to enhanced usual care was no better than enhanced usual care alone for young children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Clinically meaningful improvements in social and communication skills were not achieved in either group over this time. This result from a large well designed NIHR-funded international trial contrasts with an earlier systematic review of small trials that suggested beneficial effects for this specialised therapy.
Qualified music therapists provided social interactions with the children through music and singing once to three times per week. Centres in nine countries participated, including the UK. Usual care comprised a wide range of local services including communication therapies. The enhanced care was three counselling and support sessions provided to all parents in the study.
Though music itself may be useful for some children with an ASD, this specialist delivered therapy did not show any detectable benefit.
Why was this study needed?
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions affecting social interaction, communication and behaviours. Around one in every 100 people in the UK have an ASD, usually diagnosed around the age of five years. ASD can have wide-reaching effects on children and their families. The estimated UK cost of supporting children combined with loss of parental earnings is more than £3 billion per year.
Although there is no cure for ASD, a variety of interventions are used to manage the condition and provide support. Music therapy aims to improve social and communication skills and is offered on the NHS.
A 2014 Cochrane review of ten studies (165 participants) suggesting positive effects of music therapy and suggested that larger-scale real-world trials were needed. This international trial recruited more than twice this number of participants, sufficient to test the effects of music therapy on young children with ASD when added to usual clinical practice.
What did this study do?
This randomised clinical trial, TIME-A, included 364 children aged four to seven years. They had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder and no serious sensory disabilities. Ten centres participated from nine high-income countries including a UK arm funded by the NIHR.
Children were randomly allocated to receive one-to-one half-hour improvisational music therapy sessions for five months on top of enhanced standard care or enhanced standard care alone. Half the children receiving music therapy were invited to one session per week, and the other half to three sessions per week. Specialist music therapists used a standardised approach. Enhanced standard care comprised usual care in each country combined with three parent counselling sessions.
The study was well conducted with low drop-out. The researchers collecting and analysing data were unaware of the treatment group, which reduced bias.
What did it find?
- At five months there was no clinically significant improvement in autism symptoms in either group. This was according to the 27 point Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) social affect score, where higher numbers indicate worse symptoms. It slightly reduced from 14.08 to 13.23 in the music group and from 13.49 to 12.58 in the usual care group (mean difference [MD] 0.06, 95% confidence interval [CI] -0.70 to 0.81). A change of at least one point would be considered to be meaningful.
- Music therapy did not have a delayed effect at seven months after the intervention period. At 12 months since baseline measures, the small but clinically significant improvement in the intervention group was the same as the improvement in the control group (MD 0.16 ADOS points, 95% CI -0.62 to 0.94).
- There were no differences between groups according to the Social Responsiveness Scale total score which was completed by parents at five and 12 months.
- Results did not differ for children of different ages and types of ASD, nor according to the number of music therapy sessions per week.
- Children in the intervention group received 36 other therapy sessions, compared to 45 sessions for children in the control group. These included speech and language therapy, communication training, and sensory-motor therapies.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
The 2013 NICE guideline on autism spectrum disorders in children recommends only one type of psychosocial approach to reduce core autistic symptoms. These are social communication interventions involving play-based strategies with parents, carers or teachers. Due to the weak evidence base, there was no recommendation for music therapy.
The guideline is due to be updated in 2018.
What are the implications?
Improvisational music therapy delivered by specialist music therapists did not improve social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorders. Small improvements over 12 months were seen in both groups.
It is not clear whether this was due to the enhanced aspect of care – the three sessions provided to all parents in the study – or the other types of therapy sessions provided to all of the children.
It is also possible that any effect of music therapy was diluted because of the practicalities of conducting this sort of trial. For example, it might have replaced other effective components of care. Researchers report that children in music groups attended fewer other sessions and this may have led to similar improvements at 12 months despite add-on music therapy having an effect.
Despite these concerns, it seems that this type of specialised therapy appears to have no detectable benefit.
Citation and Funding
Bieleninik L, Geretsegger H, Mossler K, et al. Effects of improvisational music therapy vs enhanced standard care on symptom severity among children with autism spectrum disorder: The TIME-A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2017;318(6):525-35.
The UK arm of this trial was funded by the National Institute for Health Research [Health Technology Assessment Programme] (project number 12/167/95).
Broder-Fingert S, Feinberg E, Silverstein M. Music therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. JAMA. 2017;318(6):523-24.
Geretsegger M, Elefant C, Mossler K, Gold C. Music therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(6):CD004381.
NHS Choices. Autism spectrum disorder: Treatment. London: Department of Health; 2016.
NICE. Autism spectrum disorder in under 19s: support and management. CG170. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2013.
NICE. Surveillance report 2016 - Autism spectrum disorder in under 19s: recognition, referral and diagnosis (2011) NICE guideline CG128 and Autism spectrum disorder in under 19s: support and management (2013) NICE guideline CG170: Commentary on selected new evidence. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2016.
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