Rhythmic Relating in Autism Therapies – by Stuart Daniel

People on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with the experience of being in sync with neurotypical people, and vice versa. Without good-enough synchrony, it is difficult for us to play together. And without the feeling of togetherness that flourishes in playful synchrony, therapeutic co-regulation is hard to achieve. Client-centred therapy approaches tend to support growth towards self-regulation; but this relies on developing co-regulation, where the nervous system of one person supports the nervous system of another through vulnerability and on towards connection and robustness. To find co-regulatory support for clients on the autism spectrum, we need to change our communication style. Here, we explore the use of rhythmical elements to add pulse-beat, clarity and momentum to playful interaction; to enable social timing and therapy…

Charles Darwin suggested that rhythm is an evolutionarily ancient human capacity and is at the root of how we interact and learn language. Getting a bit more up to date, myself and a team of researchers, therapists, and composers have been taking a deep look at the current developmental psychology and neuroscience of rhythm, movement, and autism. We explored how most people on the autism spectrum can track and hear a beat, are sensitive and open to a world of sensitively chosen sounds, and often love rhythm in many forms. We looked at ways in which we could add rhythmic elements to our interactive behaviour to support social timing when playfully interacting with someone diagnosed with autism. We have come up with a skill-set for practitioners: Rhythmic Relating.

Rhythmic Relating can complement most broadly client-centred therapeutic approaches to playful work with clients on the autism spectrum. It can be a bridge from non-verbality or unconventional communication towards word-based or structured therapies, a support when specialising in working with clients on the autism spectrum, or a new way of communicating to add to your existing therapeutic skills.

Rhythmic Relating starts with simplicity (keeping sensory and social input minimum) and acclimatization (spending time getting comfortable with each other). From there, we move on to focus on spontaneous movements, sounds, or object-play. We use a range of mirroring skills across different senses and rhythmic support skills (bringing in simple supporting rhythms, accenting specific moments or behaviours, using specific sounds which promote movement and action). This can be done with the voice, body, or simple percussive instrument – it is something for everyone; you definitely do not need to be a musician or play an instrument. Using this skill-set we can support the pulse-beat of interaction. We can help people feel and understand what might come next and, as such, experience joyful social timing.

An Open-Access Article gives the detail of Rhythmic Relating:
Rhythmic Relating: Bidirectional Support for Social Timing in Autism Therapies
Frontiers in Developmental Psychology

The paper covers a lot of ground. If you would prefer to begin with an alternative, quicker reading-route please: read the Introduction (pages 2-4), Summary of Working Assumptions 1 and 2 (pages 8 and 14) and then page 14 onwards. You can also download the therapy examples in the Supplementary Material (additional download) to support your reading.
Rhythmic Relating is evolving… want to get involved?

If the Rhythmic Relating model is of interest to you, maybe you feel inspired to help develop it

If you are an active therapist and might be interested in working with the skill-set in practice,
getting involved with a pilot intervention efficacy study (combining your therapeutic approach with
Rhythmic Relating) – please get in touch.

If you are a researcher interested in designing and implementing experiments looking into
hypotheses related to Rhythmic Relating– please get in touch.

Or if you have any related creative ideas and want to open up a discussion – please get in touch.

You could connect with any of the five corresponding authors in the paper.
As a central point of contact, please email Stu: [email protected]

Rhythmic Relating: Bidirectional Support for Social Timing in Autism Therapies