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Kids, Keyboards and Conversation: How a summer rock camp strives to help youth with autism

Andrea Gibson | Jun 16, 2016

Image Credit: Courtesy of Ohio University College of Fine Arts.

A new Ohio University program is exploring how playing rock ‘n’ roll can help kids with high-functioning autism build social skills.

The program, Camp R.O.C.K. (Reaching Out and Connecting Kids), will be held from July 11-15 at Seigfred Hall this summer as part of a pilot study, funded by the Ohio University Innovation Strategy, on how the arts can be used to address health and wellness issues.

Camp R.O.C.K. is designed to bring together youth ages 7-12 with high-functioning autism and their peers without disabilities. Working as a team, the kids will learn to play and perform rock music.

Although academic programs exist to help students with high-functioning autism succeed in the classroom, “social nuance is very difficult to teach,” said Laura Brown, an assistant professor of music therapy at Ohio University and co-organizer of Camp R.O.C.K. Youth with high-functioning autism can struggle with social skills such as understanding humor, gauging others’ emotions or carrying on a conversation.

Brown and her colleague Joann Benigno, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, and their undergraduate and graduate students will study how the rock camp impacts the quality and frequency of interactions between the students enrolled. The researchers will examine, for example, how the kids with high-functioning autism initiate or respond to conversations, and how they follow or deviate from topics, Brown explained. The team’s hypothesis is that music can help the students learn concepts such as reciprocity, turn taking and impulse control, she said.

In addition, the team will survey parent satisfaction with the program and the faculty will interview the student researchers about how the collaboration impacted learning.

The music therapy and speech language pathology students already are working together to plan activities for the camp and are very enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary partnership, Benigno said.

The program is still recruiting students without disabilities;  no previous musical experience is required. Students enrolled will get credit for the Athens Community Music School, which is assisting with marketing and promotion of the program.

Camp R.O.C.K. quickly enrolled its cohort of kids with high-functioning autism, as the community of families in the area with children who qualify are active in such support programs, Brown noted.

Brown, who joined Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts two years ago, focuses on the links between music and autism in her research. A collaborative project with colleagues in Texas and Alabama has explored inclusive music classes for students with autism. In addition, Brown has studied whether listening to happy or sad music can help a child with autism better recognize emotions on faces. She has found that hearing melancholy melodies was more influential on recognition than upbeat tunes.

Camp R.O.C.K. is one of two initiatives funded by the Ohio University Innovation Strategy that explore the feasibility of creating a dedicated space on campus for projects that allow researchers from different disciplines across campus to study the impact of fine arts on health and wellness. Led by Kamile Geist, associate professor of music therapy, the overall initiative, The ARTS Research Teaching and Service Learning Lab (ARTS Lab), was one of five proposals that received $20,000 in planning grant funding from the Innovation Strategy in January 2016. Geist, in collaboration with faculty in dance, education and medicine, will study how rhythm and movement can impact the stress of infant caregivers. This study will take place in the university’s Clinical and Translational Research Unit (CTRU) in the fall.

For more information about Camp R.O.C.K., contact CampRockAthens@gmail.com or 740.593.4234.

For more information about the Innovation Strategy, visit www.ohio.edu/research/innovationstrategy.cfm.