Learning to play the drums reduces the behavioural difficulties seen in children with autism, according to new brain-imaging research.
“Drumming resulted in increased connectivity in areas (of the brain) responsible for inhibition and self-regulation,” says Dr Cornelia Carey, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland who took part in the research.
The findings were published in the prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.
“One of the important things for me about a study like this is that it provides evidence of a non-pharmacological intervention inducing positive brain changes in adolescents with autism,” says Carey.
“This lends weight to such interventions and to the argument that they should be more widely accessible,” she adds.
Up to 1.5% of school-going children in Ireland have been diagnosed with autism according to a 2016 report by the National Council for Special Education in Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“Music is well acknowledged to improve cognition and emotional well being, but drumming, in particular, improves attention span, reduces impulsivity and improves coordination,” says Carey.
“It has long been known that music can be very satisfying to some people with autism,” agrees Tara Matthews of the Irish Society for Autism.
The scientists investigated the impact of drum training on brain function in 36 autistic children with no drumming experience.
“A key aspect of drumming is that it requires motor planning and timing accuracy, and, therefore, improves both attentional focus and inhibitory control,” says Dr Marie-Stephanie Cahart, a scientist based at Kings College in London, who led the research.
One group of children were given two drumming lessons per week over eight weeks, while another group did not.
Each lesson included a drumming assessment of the child, an MRI scan of the brain, and completion of a questionnaire by a parent relating to the participants’ behavioural difficulties.
Previous studies have demonstrated the positive role drum training can have in improving behavioural outcomes for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
However, none of these studies had explored how these behavioural changes impacted specific regions of the brain.
“At the end of the study, all participants reported that they really enjoyed learning to drum, and some of them even carried on with the drum tuition after the study was over,” says Cahart.
“Carers and drum tutors also informally reported an improvement in the young adults’ ability to make eye contact, verbalise their needs and regulate their emotions, leading to improved self-esteem and a reduction in angry outbursts,” she says.
The goal, says Cahart, is to build a network of neuroscientists, musicians, mental health and educational practitioners to enable creative interventions, such as drum training, to better tackle the difficulties – mental and physical – facing children with autism.
The health services in Ireland that provide drumming for children with autism are only sporadically available, says Carey, and even then this is offered as an activity, not specifically as an autism therapy.
“Advocates for autism in Wexford, Drumadore in Galway, Gheel Autism in Dublin and Kildare and Autism Support in Louth and Meath all provide drumming to people with autism, but these organisations are limited to specific regions,” says Carey.
“The Department of Education released ‘Autism Good Practice Guidance for Schools Supporting Children and Young People in March of this year, and within that document, music is mentioned as an intervention for improving attention,” says Carey.
“I would hope that interventions with a clear evidence base, such as drumming, will be considered,” she adds.