Dr Lila Kossyvaki, lecturer in Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties at the University of Birmingham and Dr Sara Curran from Cambridge University researched further development of the Cosmo units and measured their impact on engagement, emotional expression and social communication of children on the Spectrum. After a round of pilot studies, we ran eight ten-minute sessions with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (one female and four males between 5 and 7 years old) and Severe Learning Disabilities at their SEN school.
The primary study took place between February and March 2016. Five staff members (one teacher and four teaching assistants) participated in the sessions to support the children and the researcher. They also took part in five focus group interviews where they shared their views on potential changes in children’s behaviour as the intervention went along and strengths and areas for further development of Cosmo units. The study followed a participatory action research methodology in which researchers and practitioners work in close partnership to produce viable improvements to real-world problems (Reason and Bradbury, 2001). The researcher used the following Cosmo activities: Improvisation, Follow the Light, Orchestration, Turn-Taking and Exploration. The researcher used the units with the children following elements from Intensive Interaction (Nind and Hewett, 2001), Musical Interaction (Methley and Wimpory, 2010) and Reciprocal Imitation Training (RIT) (Ingersoll and Schreibman, 2006). In sum, the researcher kept a balance between modelling actions and following the child’s initiative. She imitated the children’s verbal and non-verbal behaviours, ran commentaries on their play using simple language, received their attention before modelling, prompted and praised them.
Combining music and technology
The strengths of the Cosmo units rely on two primary elements, which work very efficiently for the population that formed the sample of this study, people with ASD and other learning disabilities. The two elements are music and technology. Music is a fundamental communication channel for people with complex learning needs and is a medium of sharing emotions and intentions, even for non-verbal communication (MacDonald et al., 2002). Additionally, ‘music appreciation requires no verbal understanding; it goes beyond intellect and therefore is accessible to all levels of intelligence’ (Corke, 2002, p. 12). On the other hand, technology is predictable, with consistent responses. It does not require an understanding of social rules and conventions, and language skills, making it ideal for people with ASD (Murray, 1997).
A preliminary analysis of the findings showed that:
1) engagement either increased or remained high for four out of five children,
2) expression of positive emotions increased for most children,
3) social communication, especially requesting and rejecting, as well as commenting, was higher than typically expected for this cohort.
Last but not least, there was some knowledge co-production between staff and researchers like the one described in Parsons et al. (2015), and the researcher came up with some valid advantages but also challenges as a result of working in a multidisciplinary team which confirmed existing literature (Lacey, 1998; Lacey, 2012).