Sounds into Syllables- A Teaching System for Children with Autism

The Problem

Autism is the nation's fastest-growing developmental disorder. Each year 1 in 150 children will be diagnosed with autism. There are almost 1.5 million cases of autism in the United States alone, with 3 children being diagnosed per hour (Autism Speaks, 2007). Most people have a friend or family member living with autism, and I am no exception. I have a ten year old cousin who is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Watching her at family gatherings sparked a desire in me to help her find a way to cope with her autism. I created a music based teaching system called Sounds into Syllables® which is designed to assist these children with their communication and social development difficulties by teaching them how to spell, read, classify words and correctly identify the facial expressions for six universal emotions. Part 1 of the system applies the musical component of ‘pitch’ or ‘tone’ to the process of learning letters and words. The child learns to listen to the letters as musical sounds as well as spoken sounds. With the mastery of the alphabet, the child begins to learn 26 different nouns (animal names). The senses of touch, sight and hearing are further integrated with the introduction of textured words, drawings and sound effects. There is an accompanying teaching book entitled A to Z Animal Book as well as a companion CD and A to Z Animal Workbook. In Part 2 of the system, the 26 animal nouns are matched to 26 related verbs such as dog/bark and lion/roar. There is a second book entitled Animals in Action with the textured words and drawings of the animals in their passive and active states. The child learns the related verbs in the same way he/she learned the nouns. To establish the conceptual relationship between the animal and its action, an animated computer program has been designed specifically for the teaching system. Part 3 of the system addresses the difficulties of social interaction, by emphasizing face perception and emotion recognition. Musical harmony is introduced with the creation of six three-part harmonies each linked to the six universal emotions of happy, sad, afraid, angry, surprised and disgusted. In addition, three two-part harmonies have been created and linked to nouns, verbs and adjectives to further expand word classification for the purpose of sentence creation. These three and two-part harmonies as well as the musical alphabet have been integrated into a forty page book called The Story of Little Bear. Textured letters and color coding are used throughout the book which has also been formatted as a computer book with a number of additional features, such as rollover images and animations. In October, 2006 I implemented a research study with a group of 20 children ranging in age from 6 to 17 who were diagnosed with various forms of autism. The criteria for participation in the study were demonstrated interest in music or musical stimuli and limited or no letter/word recognition. This longitudinal study in ongoing however preliminary results are encouraging. In addition, the system is benefiting a group of children who are diagnosed with learning disabilities other than autism.

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