Study Sounds the Benefits of Music Therapy for 3 Sanfilippo Children

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Music therapy may be beneficial for children with Sanfilippo syndrome, a small study in Spain illustrates.

The study, “Music therapy and Sanfilippo syndrome: an analysis of psychological and physiological variables of three case studies,” was published in the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases.

Music therapy has been shown to be beneficial for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental differences. However, there is almost no data on its use for people with rare diseases like Sanfilippo syndrome, although since children with Sanfilippo often have autistic traits, it’s likely they could benefit, according to researchers.

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The study included three children with Sanfilippo syndrome, ages 7 to 9, which included two siblings (a boy and a girl) with Sanfilippo type A, and an unrelated girl with type B.

Each child attended weekly 45-minute music therapy sessions, with a total of 20 sessions over three months.

In a session, the children would be prompted to improvise songs using their names and those of their families or friends. The aim of this exercise was to promote emotional expression, memory, and speech in a fun and engaging way. Instruments would sometimes be incorporated based on the needs of the child. For example, percussion instruments were used to work on gross motor control.

At the start and end of each session, the music therapist would play a song improvised and personalized based on the needs of each child.

The researchers presented observations for each of the three children. Broadly, they noted that, even though the children were often hyperactive and distractible (common in Sanfilippo), all were able to engage with the music, and the therapy seemed to help them be calmer and more regulated.

One girl often cried and appeared distressed at the start of the session, but she would stop crying once the music therapist started playing his guitar.

About the boy, the researchers wrote: “When he listened to the guitar, he moved his legs, although he looked calm (because of his position in the chair), and his breathing was calm and relaxed … positive emotions were strongly expressed and he smiled when he played.”

The third child “communicated by repeating the sounds made by the MT [musical therapist], or creating her own singing, and playing the instrument played by the MT. At the gestural and body level, she frequently held the MT’s hand and maintained visual contact with him,” they added.

Psychological measures — for example, cognitive function and social communication — tended to improve following music therapy, the researchers reported.

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Music Therapy for People with Sanfilippo Syndrome

In addition to observing the children directly, the researchers also conducted interviews with their parents. A common thread in these interviews was that, since Sanfilippo is a neurodegenerative disease where symptoms progressively worsen, it was hard to tell whether there were long-term benefits from music therapy.

One parent said their child “had been calm during the [music therapy] session, but when they left, hyperactivity and behaviour problems returned.”

The siblings’ mother noted that both her children have evidently enjoyed the music therapy. She said she “considered that her son’s level of development had improved” compared to other children with Sanfilippo syndrome, and added that her daughter “really likes music, and she sings and dances daily,” which has long been an important way that mother and daughter communicate.

“In all cases, the parents stated that, to a greater or lesser extent, they had seen that music therapy had benefited their children, especially at a social-emotional level,” the researchers wrote.

The team stressed that these results are based on only a few children, noting a need for more research. However, they said their findings “could be useful to encourage the development of a music therapy programme not only for children with MPS III [Sanfilippo syndrome] but for anyone suffering from a rare disease or a neurodegenerative disorder of this nature that involves verbal and cognitive impairment.”