Professor awarded grant to use virtual music therapy for children on autism spectrum

Portrait of Eugenia Hernandez Ruiz, assistant professor in ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre

Eugenia Hernandez Ruiz


Eugenia Hernandez Ruiz, assistant professor in ASU's School of Music, Dance and Theatre, was recently awarded The Arthur Flagler Fultz Research Award in the amount of $20,000 from the American Music Therapy Association for her research project investigating how to help parents of autistic children use music in their children’s development.

“This project is based on my desire to create a virtual platform to coach parents in how to use music for their autistic children’s development,” Hernandez Ruiz said.

The annual award was created “to encourage, promote and fund music therapy research and/or to conduct research on new and innovative music therapy treatments.” Hernandez Ruiz said the grant is a prestigious research award within the music therapy field.

Hernandez Ruiz’s project, “Virtual Parent Coaching of Music Interventions for Young Autistic Children,” is a continuation of two previous research studies supported by Herberger Institute Research-Building Investment grants that Hernandez Ruiz was awarded in fall 2018 and fall 2020.

Hernandez Ruiz has been conducting similar research for several years, she said, including a smaller virtual project funded by the Herberger Institute grant with eight Mexican families. The recently completed project served as a pilot for her larger and more ambitious project.

For the new project, Hernandez Ruiz will train a music therapist and three research assistants to work with 15 families involved in the study.

“I will work alongside the new staff to conduct the coaching with the parents and children,” said Hernandez Ruiz. “We will evaluate if coaching is useful for both the parents and the children, and how much they like the experience. We also want to know whether this type of virtual therapy is something they are interested in continuing. We believe it will be, because a lot of families and parents have had to work with their children without services due to being isolated with the pandemic.”

The project will begin this month and finish on June 30, 2023. Families from around the country will be able to sign up for the project. The families will be recruited through social media, word of mouth and emails to autism societies and several institutions that work with autism.

Families will learn how to use music combined with several specific strategies that the music therapist and Hernandez Ruiz will demonstrate during the sessions as they coach the parents through the new process.

Hernandez Ruiz said the foundation of this research is that even though parents are non-musicians, they can still make music with their children, and that musicality is something that parents can use for the development of their autistic children.

“We, as music therapists, do a lot of great work in early intervention, and we have great results with the children,” said Hernandez Ruiz. “We are an established evidence-based practice for children on the spectrum. I want to share those experiences with the parents so they can use it in everyday life. They can take their child to the grocery store or when they are giving them a bath and say, ‘Let's sing,’ or they can play with objects and make music and get the child engaged. We know these activities help with social communication and also with language.”

Hernandez Ruiz said there are a few other people in Europe and Australia doing similar work and research. She has also recently began collaborating with Miriam Lense from Vanderbilt University.

“Coaching has been done in early intervention for 20 years, and in autism for about 10 years,” Hernandez Ruiz said. “What's unique about the work I have been doing is the idea of parent coaching of music interventions – of actually training the parent in using music with their child.”

Hernandez Ruiz said some parents may be reluctant or afraid because they are not musicians, but parents can be effective and create attachment, connection and communication with whatever musicality they have.

Hernandez Ruiz said she became interested in using coaching with families while working in an autism clinic and hearing parents tell her, “You do beautiful work, but I cannot get him to even sit and eat his lunch, so what do I do?” Even with her extensive training in both autism and music therapy, Hernandez Ruiz said she felt challenged to be sensitive to the parents’ needs as well as the child's needs – to find a way to work with the whole family.

Hernandez Ruiz has been conducting research, developing a conceptual framework and writing publications since pursuing her PhD. She wanted to create a new resource, based on the Early Start Denver Model (Rogers & Rogers, 2009), that would combine music with therapy and provide a new method of delivery.

“We want to empower parents to have resources to be better parents,” she said. “They are not going to be music therapists. They are going to be better parents.”

Hernandez Ruiz said when she virtually interviewed parents from a previous qualitative study from across five states, she discovered that several families in rural settings did not know that music therapy existed.

“I realized that we need to develop a resource that we can take to families in their homes and connect with them and provide them with resources, even if they are very far away from any center or do not have the ability to travel,” said Hernandez Ruiz. “This will help us reach underserved populations, help us reach rural communities and help us reach across borders. It will help us reach people.”

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