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Research with Uni of Birmingham

Our team worked with Dr Lila Kossyvaki, Lecturer in Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Sara Curran from Cambidge University to conduct a research study with Cosmo, measuring its impact on the engagement, emotional expression and social communication of children with autism.

The study lasted 5 weeks and examined the interaction of five children with Cosmo. The children are students of Hamilton School in Birmingham and have severe conditions of Autism (P levels 1-3).

The study has been peer-reviewed and published at the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities in spring 2018. It is titled “The role of technology-mediated music-making in enhancing engagement and social communication in children with autism and intellectual disabilities”. More on the paper found here.

You can read a summary of the study below:

Increased Engagement in Learning

Significantly increased the engagement levels of all 5 children who participated in the study.

Increased Frequency & Quality of Communication

Increased the frequency of initiating communication. Increased responsiveness to adult’s communication.

Improved Emotional Regulation

Decreased expression of negative emotions and increased expression of positive emotions.

The Cosmo project

University of Birmingham
February -March 2016

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).


Corke, M. (2002) Approaches to communication through music. London: David Fulton.

Ingersoll, B. and Schreibman, L. (2006) Teaching reciprocal imitation skills to young children with autism using a naturalistic behavioral approach: effects on language, pretend play and joint attention.  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36 (4): 487-505.

Lacey, P. (1998) Interdisciplinary training for staff working with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Journal of Interprofessional Care 12(1): 43-52.

Lacey, P. (2012) ‘Meeting complex needs through collaborative multidisciplinary teamwork’. In P. Lacey and C. Ouvry (Eds.) People with profound and multiple learning disabilities: a collaborative approach to meeting complex needs. London: Routledge (pp. ix – xvii).

MacDonald, R. A. R., Hargreaves, D. J. and Miell, D. (eds.) (2002) Musical identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Methley, A. and Wimpory, D. (2010) Music interaction therapy for children with autism. [DVD]. Bangor: Bangor University.

Murray, D. K. C. (1997) Autism and Information Technology: Therapy with Computers. In: Jordan, R. (ed.) and Powell, S. (ed.) Autism and Learning. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Nind, M. and Hewett, D. (2001) A Practical guide to intensive interaction. Kidderminster, Worcestershire: BILD Publications.

Parsons, S., Guldberg, K., Porayska-Pomsta, K. and Lee, R. (2015) Digital stories as a method for evidence-based practice and knowledge co-creation in technology-enhanced learning for children with autism. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 38(3): 247-271.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2001) “Introduction: inquiry and participation in search of a world worthy of human aspiration”.  In: Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (eds.) Handbook of action research: participative enquiry and practice. London: SAGE Publications. pp. 1-14.