A young boy in an orange shirt sits in a teal-colored chair in the Route 9 Library and Innovation Center's colorful Sensory Room. Here, he's learning how to use a new device that helps children with autism modify music to suit their listening needs. In this photo, his father shows him how to use the device.
Daniel Stevens (right), professor of music theory, smiles as he sees the fruits of his labor in action in the Route 9 Library and Innovation Center. He, along with Matthew Mauriello, professor of computer and information sciences (not pictured), and their students have designed a listening device for children with autism that helps them learn to become composers.

Learning to love music

March 09, 2023 Written by Amy Cherry | Photos by Ashley Barnas

Cross-college innovation helps children with autism while providing high-impact learning experience

In an inviting space full of vibrant bold colors, fiber optic curtains, and a vibrating haptic chair, sounds of “Row Row Row Your Boat” and other popular children’s songs fill the air, and children with autism are becoming their own composers, learning to love music. 

This is the scene in the Sensory Room at the Route 9 Library and Innovation Center, where the music is theirs to alter as they see fit. When children like what they hear, they pause to listen more closely, smile, or dance. Other children focus intently as they explore the many combinations of sound available at their fingertips. Some young listeners take delight in adding a drumbeat or fast countermelody while others seem to prefer a calmer rendition of a familiar tune. As they listen, these children learn what they like to listen to and what they don’t, providing a valuable glimpse into how they respond to musical sounds. 

The children are piloting a listening device developed by University of Delaware researchers Daniel Stevens, a professor of music theory in the School of Music within the College of Arts and SciencesMatthew Mauriello, assistant professor of computer and information sciences in the College of Engineering, and their respective students.

The professors’ divergent backgrounds were a complementary match for this innovative project that aims to better the lives of children with developmental disabilities. Together, they applied for and were awarded $50,000 from the Maggie E. Neumann Health Sciences Research Fund to advance their research. The fund specifically targets interdisciplinary research and innovation that aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

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