Dr Lila Kossyvaki, Lecturer in Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties at the University of Birmingham and Dr Sara Curran from Cambridge University, conducted research on further developing the Cosmo units and measuring their impact on the engagement, emotional expression and social communication of children with autism. After a round of pilot studies 8 ten-minute sessions were ran with children with autism (1 female and 4 males, age range between 5 and 7 years old) and severe learning disabilities at their special school.
The main study took place between February and March 2016. Five members of staff (1 Teacher and 4 Teaching Assistants) participated in the sessions to support the children and the researcher and also took part in 5 focus group interviews in which they were asked their views on potential changes on children’s behaviour as the intervention went along but also strengths and areas for further development for 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: 1) improvisation, 2) follow the light, 3) orchestration, 4) turn-taking and 5) 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, she kept a balance between modelling actions and following the child’s lead; she imitated the children’s verbal and non-verbal behaviours, ran commentaries on their play using simple language, got their attention before modelling, prompted and praised them.
The strengths of the Cosmo units rely on the fact that they combine two elements which work very efficiently for the population which formed the sample of this study, people with autism and learning disabilities; these are music and technology. Music provides a fundamental channel of communication for people with complex needs, and is a medium through which emotions and meanings may be shared, even where spoken language is not possible (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). Technology, on the other hand, is predictable, with the same responses every time; it does not require understanding of social rules and conventions and language skills making it ideal for people with autism (Murray, 1997). A preliminary analysis of the findings showed that: 1) engagement either increased or remained high for 4 out of 5 children, 2) expression of positive emotions increased for most children, 3) social communication, especially requesting and rejecting but also commenting were higher than typically expected for this cohort. Last but not least, there was some knowledge co-production between staff and researchers as 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 confirming existing literature (Lacey, 1998; Lacey, 2012).