McGarry & Russo, 2015 Research Poster

Research poster presented at the Society for Music Perception and Cognition Conference, 2015.

The Acting Game: Mimicry of emotional song and speech to enhance emotion skills in autism

Lucy McGarry (1)*, Frank Russo (2)

  • University of Western Ontario. London, Ontario, CANADA
  • Ryerson University. Toronto, Ontario, CANADA


Researchers have found that individuals naturally mimic facial expressions during observation of song (Chan, Livingstone, & Russo, 2013) and speech (Turner, McIntosh & Moody, 2015) to facilitate perception. This simulation mechanism may be related to mirror neuron system (MNS) activity; individual differences in MNS functionality (Gazzola, Aziz-Zedeh & Keysers, 2006) as well as spontaneous mimicry (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999) are associated with empathy. Individuals with autism exhibit a deficit in MNS functionality as well as spontaneous mimicry during social interactions, which is thought to underpin characteristic deficits in empathy (Williams, Whiten, Suddendorf, & Perrett, 2001). We have created a computerized acting game for children with autism, in which voluntary vocal-facial mimicry is elicited and points are awarded for guessing the correct emotion of the person being mimicked. During early stages of game play the majority of stimuli are songs. As the game progresses the balance tips in favor of speech stimuli. The intention of this progression is to maximize engagement as children with autism have been found to be especially responsive to musical stimuli (Whipple, 2004). Nine children on the autism spectrum have participated in this ongoing study thus far. EEG measurement of the mu rhythm (indicative of MNS activity), EMG measurement of facial mimicry, behavioral indexes of emotion identification accuracy, and scales of social responsiveness were administered to participants before and after 2 weeks of daily game play. Preliminary data analysis has revealed improvements in accuracy of emotional identifications of sung stimuli relative to a control group. Scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale also improved. We predict that daily game play will also facilitate EEG and EMG indices of simulation during observation of emotional sung and spoken sentences.