Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with social skills, including the ability to perceive emotions based on facial expressions. Research evidence suggests that many individuals with ASD can perceive emotion in music. Examining whether music can be used to enhance recognition of facial emotion by children with ASD would inform development of music therapy interventions.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of music with a strong emotional valance (happy; sad) on children with ASD’s ability to label emotions depicted in facial photographs, and their response time.
Thirty neurotypical children and 20 children with high-functioning ASD rated expressions of happy, neutral, and sad in 30 photographs under two music listening conditions (sad music; happy music). During each music listening condition, participants rated the 30 images using a 7-point scale that ranged from very sad to very happy. Response time data were also collected across both conditions.
A significant two-way interaction revealed that participants’ ratings of happy and neutral faces were unaffected by music conditions, but sad faces were perceived to be sadder with sad music than with happy music. Across both conditions, neurotypical children rated the happy faces as happier and the sad faces as sadder than did participants with ASD. Response times of the neurotypical children were consistently shorter than response times of the children with ASD; both groups took longer to rate sad faces than happy faces. Response times of neurotypical children were generally unaffected by the valence of the music condition; however, children with ASD took longer to respond when listening to sad music.
Music appears to affect perceptions of emotion in children with ASD, and perceptions of sad facial expressions seem to be more affected by emotionally congruent background music than are perceptions of happy or neutral faces.