Engaging Autistic Students Through Music

October 8, 2019

By Ellen Lee
Contributing Writer

A classically trained violinist, Rachel Chen has performed in quartets, on stage with orchestras, and even in spontaneous jam sessions with street musicians.

Now Chen’s musical background comes in handy as she studies the behavior and interactions of autistic individuals, in particular, stimming, or self-stimulating; and repetitive actions such as the flapping of hands, the continuous tapping of various objects, or the back-and-forth rocking of the body.

When she was 19, her younger brother was diagnosed as on the spectrum, which sparked her interest in studying autism. Autistic individuals are thought to have challenges in communicating with others. Chen’s research delves into understanding autistic behaviors and how they occur in everyday circumstances, and challenging certain assumptions about the way that autistic individuals act. For one particular study, Chen spent hours recording and observing students 

in a drum circle. She documented their drum beats with musical notations, and combined the notations with discourse analysis to examine the students’ beats and bodily movements.

As she mapped it, Chen made a few observations: First, if a person was drumming alone, the pattern was not repetitive and incessant as some might expect, but rather would vary as needed. If a second student joined in the drum circle, the first student’s drumming pattern shifted in response to the second student. Once the second student left the drum circle, the first student’s drumming pattern returned to its original pattern.

Chen also observed that if two students were drumming together, their rhythms started synchronizing in a rhythmic dialogue. That’s significant, says Chen, because there are mixed attitudes about stimming, with some efforts to discourage or minimize it. Chen’s research found that stimming can actually be a social behavior – a way for autistic individuals to interact and communicate with each other – rather than a solitary, isolating act. “It was quite productive and creative, and not at all maladaptive,” she said.

Her musical training – particularly her experiences improvising on her violin with other musicians – helped her notice the different rhythms in the drum circle.“It’s all about listening, reading other people’s movements, seeing how your sound can best fit in, and seeing how your sound can respond to others,” she said about playing the violin with others. “I feel like that is exactly how the drum circle has evolved to students responding to each other.” Through a grant from the Barbara Y. White bequest, Chen teamed up with students in a School of Information class to develop another research project: the Magic Mat.

About the size of a long bath rug, the Magic Mat is connected to a circuit board and speakers. When two people stand on opposite sides of the mat and touch each other, it creates dynamic, computer-generated, musical tones. Gentle touches produce a more pleasant tone while forceful touches trigger a harsher sound. Chen took a version of the Magic Mat to a playgroup where it drew an enthusiastic response from kids and teachers alike. “I didn’t have to tell them how to play with it,” she said. “They explored it by themselves.”

Next, she hopes to see how the Magic Mat could help autistic children playfully explore how to engage with others. “It’s been such a fun project,” she said. “I can’t wait to study how kids interact with each other on the mat.”

About Rachen Chen. Chen earned a BA and MA in linguistics from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is a fourth-year doctoral student studying special education through a joint program between the GSE and San Francisco State University. Her publications include, Hoey, E. M., DeLiema, D., Chen, R. S. Y., & Flood, V. J. (2018). “Imitation in children’s locomotor play.” Research on Children and Social Interaction, 2(1).

Rachel and her Magic Mat will be at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, Calif., on Sun., Oct. 27, 2019.