Professors Team Up on Music and Autism Research
By Katharine Webster
Four-year-old Jaymason Roache and his 11-year-old brother, Braeden, both enjoy music.
So this summer, they came to a UMass Lowell music camp for children with autism spectrum disorder, which both boys have.
As the brothers took turns running around and playing different sounds and rhythms on the EcoSonic Playground they and the other campers had built – a PVC pipe structure holding musical instruments the children had designed and made from recycled materials such as plastic water bottles and buckets – their mother and the boys’ applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist looked on.
“They’ve both done really well,” says their mom, Kristen Alexa, of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. “Braeden has a difficult time making choices, and yesterday he had to make up a rhythm – and he had no difficulty doing that.”
The camp uses the EcoSonic Playground Project materials, methods and teaching plan developed by UMass Lowell Music Assoc. Prof. Elissa Johnson-Green. She is working with Psychology Assoc. Prof. Rocio Rosales, coordinator of the master’s program in Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism Studies, to adapt it for children with autism.
“We’re doing a qualitative study looking at the impact of this program on these children,” Johnson-Green says. “We’re also giving open access to this kind of immersive arts program for children who don’t ordinarily get this kind of programming. It’s music-focused and provides social interaction through musical play.”
Rosales is also developing a training manual that teachers and others who work with children can use to offer the EcoSonic Playground Project elsewhere – and testing the manual by training UML students in music studies and psychology to work as teaching assistants for Johnson-Green.
“The first iteration, I was really hands-on,” Rosales says, of piloting the program with children in East Boston last fall under a $5,000 grant from the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. “This time, the students are implementing the program themselves.”
During that pilot program, Rosales says that she and Johnson-Green were impressed by how much the children were able to do and the abilities and creativity they brought to the project.
“There was very little that needed to be adapted for them,” she says, “although they did have their ABA therapists with them, working with them one-on-one.”
Johnson-Green says she, too, was impressed, especially by how well the children worked together as they drew designs, built their instruments and then played the instruments together. Social interaction can be difficult and stressful for people with autism.
“It was amazing to see how energized they became,” she says. “They were sharing, they were collaborating, and we had no behavioral issues.”
The two weeklong summer camps on campus in June were funded by a $10,000 university seed grant. The camps served about 15 children from the Greater Lowell area, enrolling both children with autism and their neurotypical siblings, ages 2 to 13.
The grant allowed the campers to attend for free. It also paid two master’s students – one in music education and one in applied behavior analysis and autism studies – to undergo training and then serve as teaching assistants. Seven undergraduates in music studies earned either service-learning credit or some of their required classroom observation hours while volunteering at the camps. A psychology undergraduate also earned service-learning credit.
Tanmai Velicheti ’21, a master’s student in applied behavior analysis and autism studies from Hyderabad, India, who is volunteering for the camps, says it is her first time working in person with children with autism spectrum disorder. She is enthusiastic about how inclusive the EcoSonic Playground Project is for children with autism, especially those with limited verbal skills.
“Music has no boundaries. Music does not differentiate,” she says.
Honors music studies major Caleb Rawlinson says he applied to work with the campers because, as a future music teacher, he knows he will have children with autism spectrum disorder in his classes. He says he’s learning a lot by watching how trained professionals interact with the children and then emulating their example.
“I’ve seen how the language we need to use is clear and direct, but also respectful,” he says. “There is a lot of redirecting the children’s attention, but also treating them as human beings with agency.”
Rosales says she and Johnson-Green are seeking more funding to continue the camps for research purposes, to provide UML students with practical experience and to give more children with autism in the Lowell area a chance to develop their musical, design and STEM skills.
“Our long-term goal is to do this on a permanent basis,” she says.