Clinical psychologist Jeremy Marriott used every ounce of his resourcefulness and his long list of friends to make his study into anxiety in children with severe autism work successfully, starting with Cyril and David. They’re the poster boys for his PhD research into music as a disrupter of self-injurious behaviour in these children.
“The research uses a simulated school bus because a school bus was a more logical setting.
If music were to be helpful listening to on the way to school it might get them there calmer. That could only be good for them, their teachers and their parents.”
Choosing the music
The Curtin University lecturer’s scientific rigor started by meeting David Helfgott whose own struggles with mental illness formed the basis of the Academy Award winning film, Shine.
“David is hugely gifted and very philanthropic and he and his wife, Gillian, are particularly keen to help those who have challenges in their lives. He selected six pieces of music that he thought would have a calming effect and would meet the guidelines of Hooper and colleagues established in 2010.”
He selected music by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms in three forms – sonata, rondo and theme with variations, which he played and recorded.
“I took the six pieces and created two-minute segments and built an online survey, de-identifying the pieces. The survey was then sent to service and support groups here, in the US, and in the UK and interested people were invited to take part. Parents rated how calming the pieces were for their child. We came out with the second movement of the Beethoven sonata No 8 Op 13 (commonly known as the Pathetique).”
Setting it up in readiness
Jeremy started riding the special school bus from Mt Hawthorn to the Sir David Brand Centre to plan the scene for his controlled trial.
“I wanted the research to be translational, so I wanted to replicate the school bus interior as realistically as possible.”
He recorded the sound of the bus with the help of Curtin sound expert Dale Towner, and filmed to project realistic images. He then went to West Van Quip, which retro-fit vans for wheelchairs, to fit a pair of bus seats designed by an engineer friend and built by his welder cousin.
The Curtin Chemistry Department offered him the use of the perfect room, and his school bus simulator was ready for his randomised control trial.
Jeremy needed to record biomarkers, so two groups of 15 boys with severe autism were chosen and one by one they came to the bus simulator.
They sat in the bus seat, their seat belt was clipped in and the first saliva sample was taken. Those who had the music ‘bus ride’ had another sample taken directly after and then again after 5, 10 and 20 minutes.
“The kids couldn’t have breakfast beforehand, so it was difficult for some, but others quite liked it because they couldn’t clean their teeth either. After the trial, it was muffin and a drink courtesy of the Curtin café.”
Saliva shows anxiety drop
“The saliva analysis showed that the kids who participated in the music group had significantly lower amylase and cortisol levels than the non-music group. Music did calm these children, which led to the third phase.”
Three school-aged boys, known as Master Wednesday, Master Thursday and Master Friday all demonstrate confronting self-injurious behaviours. They visited the simulator over four consecutive weeks, with and without Beethoven’s input, with the accompanying saliva samples.
This is where Cyril the Teddy Bear comes in. Cyril, named after one of Jeremy’s biomed supervisors A/Prof Cyril Mamotte, wore special glasses fitted with a small camera to record the boys’ behaviour.
The results in Master Friday’s case, were revolutionary. Master Friday has a mouth reflex where he has to be chewing on something all the time, which has impacted on his jaw development and displaced teeth.
“His activity prior to the music was high frequency – over 90% on my records – but when the music started he was transfixed; he focused on the sound, he stopped self-injuring and his biomarkers all dropped. I thought, that’s my PhD right there!”
“I know from my clinical work how big an issue anxiety is for people with autism right along the spectrum and the everyday world is not geared up to accommodate them. If we can get an idea of what their baseline anxiety is, we can make a difference.”