MMR and Autism

In light of the recent measles outbreak in Wales, I feel compelled to post an article on the subject of the MMR vaccine and autism. The first and most important thing to note here is that there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE of any link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. Please do take the advice of your local health board and make sure you have your child vaccinated. Measles is a serious disease with a high risk of nasty complications many of which are life changing (for example, deafness) or life threatening (for example, meningitis). No-one wants this for their child.

The reason that vaccination rates dropped dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s is a small and now thoroughly discredited study by Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues which resulted in a media frenzy around the suggestion that there may be a causal link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. The key things to note about this study are:

  • It was a fundamentally flawed piece of work with a tiny research group of 12 children.
  • It did not even set out to study the effects of the MMR vaccine, a possible link was merely implied in the discussion.
  • Most of the authors have now retracted their involvement in the study.

Since the Wakefield study was published, there have been a variety of very large, scientifically sound studies which have categorically shown that the MMR vaccine is not a primary cause of autism. Key points of these studies are:

  • The number of cases of autism with and without developmental regression have continued to rise in countries like Japan where the combined MMR vaccine has been withdrawn.
  • There was no sudden jump in the number of cases of autism diagnosed after the MMR vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1988. The rise is smooth and gradual.

Almost all researchers now agree that, while autism is certainly being diagnosed more frequently, its causes are complex and unlikely to be down to one single factor, even from a genetic perspective.

You can find more information about MMR & Autism on the website of the National Autistic Society.

Using iPad Apps

Well, I have finally entered the 21st Century and bought and iPad for Blethers!

The Blethers iPadAs well as the cost implication, I have given a lot of thought to the consideration that children nowadays have a lot of screen exposure in their daily lives. With evidence of a link between screen time and poor attention skills growing, I am anxious not to become part of the problem! I will therefore be very careful about who I use the iPad with and for how long. Having said that, it is an inescapable fact that the children of today are growing up in a world where using new technology and therefore screens is necessary for day to day life. It’s also true that, for some young people, a screen-based activity is the only way to engage them. I suppose what I’m saying here is that I am viewing the new iPad as another tool to add to my toy cupboard rather than something I will use all the time with all of my clients. I won’t be getting rid of Crocodile Dentist or Pop Up Pirate any time soon, that’s for sure!

If you’re interested in iPad Apps for communication skills, keep an eye out here as I will be adding some comments on the ones I use as I get a chance to try them…

Music and Communication Development

Music elicits some kind of response from most people whether that’s singing, humming, tapping or a full-on dance routine, and children are no different. Music stimulates the whole of the brain and is multi-sensory, fun and engaging. Because of this, music teaches children many, many skills without them even realising they’re learning.

Believe it or not, music and communication are closely linked and there are many skills that are common to both. There is now lots of research which supports the view that exposure to music from an early age is beneficial for communication development both in terms of spoken language and literacy skills.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a virtuoso or child prodigy to benefit! Music is a fundamental part of early communication, indeed almost all parents sing to their children from the day they are born. Most of us will be able to name at least one song our parents sang to us as a child whether it’s good old ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ or the Scottish classic ‘Ally Bally Bee’.

First, let’s think about some of the communication skills we learn through singing or being sung to as children:

  • Maintaining concentration – singing is very engaging and therefore easy to pay attention to for a long time.
  • Anticipating what’s coming next – music and songs lead the brain to expect or look for the next notes in the melody. Songs, especially nursery rhymes and the like, often have a predictable, repeating pattern of words and/or actions which makes it easy for a child to learn to anticipate what’s coming next as well as supporting maintenance of concentration.
  • Taking turns in communication by learning to listen and then respond within the song.
  • Using non verbal communication and eye contact – many children’s songs have accompanying actions which encourages the development of watching another person, copying them and co-ordinating gestures with spoken language.
  • Vocabulary development through repetition of words and use of rhyme.
  • Sentence development – hearing the same sentence structure over and over again is essential for learning to say new and longer sentences.
  • Phonological awareness – awareness of alliteration, rhyme, syllables and rhythms are essential skills for later learning to read and write as it supports the ability to break words down into sounds, work out what those sounds are and put them together again to make new words.
  • Sequencing – Like music, all language follows a sequence whether it’s the order of sounds in words, words in sentences or information in a story.

Experimenting with musical instruments and melodies is just as important as singing. Using a musical instrument adds extra sensory dimensions to the experience of music through the senses of touch, proprioception and vision. Like singing, playing music instruments and learning music supports many skills that underlie communication:

  • Concentration – listening to music and sound is fun and children will often manage to maintain concentration for longer to an activity if music is involved.
  • Listening – to sing the right words at the right pitch or to copy a tune or rhythm with an instrument, you need to listen carefully and discriminate between the sounds you hear.
  • Self expression and creativity – music is inherently creative and making up songs and melodies is a fun way to express yourself without necessarily using spoken words.
  • Memory – remembering tunes and rhythms exercises auditory memory which is essential for learning new vocabulary and language structures. When we hear new language, we need to hold what we hear in our auditory memories so that we can analyse it and commit it to long term memory.
  • Pitch awareness – intonation in spoken communication is made up of variations in pitch and different ‘tunes’ have different meanings. For example, a rising ‘tune’ in a sentence usually means that it is a question. Music helps to develop awareness of pitch variations.
  • Rhythm – like music, all spoken language has a rhythm to it. Within words, we have rhythms in the form of syllables and stress patterns. Sentences also have rhythm in their stress patterns. Being able to recognise and repeat rhythms is essential for natural communication. Being able to break sounds into smaller chunks using rhythm as we do with syllables, is essential for learning to read and spell. Music helps us to learn these skills.

There are many benefits of getting involved with music from an early age and I hope that this article gives you a flavour of the positive influence that music will have on your child’s development. But, first and foremost, MUSIC IS FUN! Sing with your children and have a look for music groups near you, for example Morningside School of Music run music classes specifically for pre-school children, give them a call on 0131 447 1117 to see what’s on. Enjoy!