Incorporating singing and other music-based activities in therapy sessions can make a big impact for kids with autism, new research suggests, boosting communication and other factors.

Children on the spectrum who participated in one-on-one therapy that included music outpaced those who attended similar sessions without the music component, according to findings published recently in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Researchers looked at 51 kids with autism ages 6 to 12 who all received eight to 12 weeks of intervention with a therapist that centered on reciprocal interaction. Activities like singing and playing instruments were part of the sessions for 26 of the children. Therapy sessions for the other kids included only nonmusical play activities.

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Parents completed questionnaires about their children’s social communication skills and symptom severity as well as their family’s quality of life before and after the intervention. In addition, the kids were given MRI scans to assess their brain activity.

While symptom severity remained unchanged in the all of the children following the sessions, parents of those whose therapy included music reported gains in their children’s social communication and their family’s quality of life. Results from the MRI scans suggested that the children may have seen changes in brain connectivity as a result of the music therapy, the study found.

“The universal appeal of music makes it globally applicable and can be implemented with relatively few resources on a large scale in multiple settings such as home and school,” said Aparna Nadig, an associate professor at McGill University who worked on the study.

The researchers said their findings are the first to show improvements in communication and brain connectivity stemming from a music-based intervention, but they will need to replicate the results with multiple therapists in order to assess the real-world applicability of the intervention.