The Rebecca Center for Music Therapy, a clinic and training program on the Rockville Centre campus, is the only place in the United States participating in the collaborative study, which this week enters its second phase.
To be considered for the study, children must be between 4 and 7 years old with an autism diagnosis and have had little or no music therapy.
The study, funded with a $2.5 million grant from the Research Council of Norway and in-kind donations from the sites, is expected to include more than 300 children around the world.
"There's emerging research now that shows music can increase a child's ability to socialize, engage and relate," said John A. Carpente, the study's U.S. site manager and founder-executive director of the Rebecca Center. "These are the core deficits of autism."
Autism spectrum disorders, known as ASDs, are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
Children diagnosed with autism often have difficulty making eye contact, pointing at an object or beginning or sustaining interaction with others.
With improvisational music therapy, the child is given an instrument, often a drum or other percussion instrument, which he or she uses to relate or "speak" with a therapist.
On a recent afternoon at the Rebecca Center, Arielle Goldman, 9, of Bellmore, who is on the autism spectrum, used a drum in such an exercise.
For the first 15 minutes of her session, Arielle stood apart from her therapist, clinging to the wall of a music therapy room. Eventually, she was persuaded to sit at a drum set.
Her therapist played a blues tune on the piano. Arielle, holding drumsticks, was expressionless and did not move.
But when the therapist stopped playing, Arielle began banging on the drum. When the therapist started playing again, Arielle stopped. She was clearly waiting for her next cue.
Their "conversation" with the instruments went on for several minutes.
Several smaller studies have been done on the efficacy of music therapy as an early intervention for autism, but nothing of this scope and size, Carpente said.
"The most important remaining challenge is to demonstrate generalized effects of music therapy -- to what extent children are able to transfer the acquired skills to new situations and environments -- and how many sessions are needed to achieve this important goal," Christian Gold, the study's lead researcher, said in an email interview from Norway.
Gold, a professor of the Grieg Academy Music Therapy Research Center of the University of Bergen, said he and others want to build on a 2006 Cochrane Collaboration review published by John Wiley & Sons that found music therapy worked better than a placebo with respect to verbal and gestural communicative skills.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in every 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder -- a prevalence figure that is rising.
Music therapy has gained in popularity over the past decade as a treatment for children with autism, said Al Bumanis, spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association, a Maryland-based professional organization representing about 4,000 practicing music therapists.
"Parents discover that music does hold their interest and intrigue the kids," Bumanis said.