Music is everywhere. It’s in our speech, our stories, and our interactions with one another. We add it to our work, relaxation, and our exercise because of its power to enhance the activities. It’s historic, cultural, and unavoidable. I would go so far to suggest music is the human experience as it has touched cultures all over the world since early human history
For my seven-year-old son on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), music is his way of connecting with the world and displaying his brilliance. When he’s listening to a song, dancing, or playing on his DJ set, there’s a hyped sense of concentration and understanding as well as a calmness that doesn’t always exist for him. In the presence of music, he’s attentive and engaged, non-confrontational, and able to recite long streams of lyrics that would stump an adult.
Like many other children on the spectrum, my son exhibits some unusual behaviors due to his difficulties with responding to his own environment, a place that may feel more uncertain to him than to others. To deal with a situation that is uncomfortable and his subsequent anxiety, my son may hide under a table or behind a shelf, bolt, interrupt by inappropriately calling out, or crawl on all fours. But when music is present, these quirks melt away, and he seems, by all sense of the definition, neurotypical.
I believe this is because music is intimately connected to his movement and emotion, that in its presence, my son feels like he can explore the environment in ways that are comfortable to him. And because humans are biologically rhythmic, seeking to keep our bodies organized, music’s extreme rhythmic stimulus helps his body subconsciously entrain and modify itself.
Sometimes, I imagine my son sees the world in song, that notes make as much sense to him as letters or numbers. Perhaps, when he hears a certain timbre or musical note, he sees a color or smells a familiar scent. Because of his reaction to music, I wondered how profound an affect it actually has on the autism mind, and when applied in a therapeutic environment, how it might affect a child’s emotional and behavioral growth.
When researching this topic, I discovered the growing popularity of the use of music therapy on ASD patients. I read stories of teens and young adults on the spectrum who described walking out of music therapy sessions “semi-new.” Others spoke about their music therapy sessions as sanctuaries where they felt accepted, out of danger, vibrant, and understood. For them, music helped them deal with feelings of being an outsider in far too often harsh social environments. Furthermore, they were finally able to recognize and appreciate their unique qualities, like focused interest, repetitive use of objects, insistence on routine, and unusual sensory interests.
A 2004 study from the Journal of Music Therapy found that music intervention used with children and teens with ASD improved social behaviors, increased focus and attention, increased communication attempts—vocalizations, verbalizations, gestures, and vocabulary—reduced anxiety, and improved body awareness and coordination. Music was also found to enhance verbal memory, improve fine motor and perceptual skills, increase sensory processing skills, improve executive functioning, and enlarge the corpus callosum—the broad band of nerve fibers that join the two hemispheres of the brain. More importantly, as is the case with my son, individuals with ASD responded positively to music when little else could get their attention, which makes it an incredibly effective therapeutic tool.
Why use music therapy?
Unlike some other forms of therapy, music therapy does not administer “prescriptions” to “cure” a particular pathology. Rather, music therapists regard the client as an equal partner in a musical improvisation. Is the client shrieking? That could form the start of a melody. Rocking back and forth? That’s a steady beat. Each session is individualized to meet the child, to devise techniques that work with each child’s individual quirks and strengths.
However, common to most children with ASD is their difficulty establishing and maintaining personal connections. Children on the spectrum often appear distant or aloof because they aren’t able to respond to nonverbal forms of communication like facial expressions. Music offers these children opportunities for personal experiences, which open the door to emotional processing, validation, mood elevation, and most importantly, the connections that are often missing from their lives.
Additionally, while some children with ASD speak fluently, others suffer varying degrees of speech impairment, such as delayed language development, difficulties initiating and sustaining conversations, and repetitive use of language. According to Music Therapy, Autism, and Language by Paige Scarbrough of Duke University, “Children with autism show increased brain activity in both the music and language-processing regions when words are sung compared to words that are spoken. Music therapy uses this power of music to its advantage by using instruments, rhythm, and lyrics in a way that increases brain activity in the language-processing centers, thus helping individuals with autism build and maintain more neural connections, which are necessary for communication.”
Children on the autism spectrum benefit from less traditional methods of teaching, like music therapy, which not only personalizes the therapy experience, but captures and sustains attention, allows for mnemonic interpretation, engages multiple areas of the brain, provides a multisensory experience, and offers predictable structure.
Music and neuroplasticity
Here’s a super neat thing about our brains: they can become rewired in either a positive or negative manner. It’s a practice called neuroplasticity, and it’s one of the most important elements in music therapy.
For example, look at the story of Gabrielle Giffords. In 2011, just a week into her third congressional term, she was a victim of an assassination attempt and was critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head. The damage to the left side of her brain left her unable to speak. But months of music therapy helped to produce new pathways in her brain, creating new avenues for speech.
The same can happen for children on the autism spectrum. How often do we hear that our ASD kids have brains that are “wired differently?” While there is much to my son’s unique mind that I love and believe will enable him to one day accomplish amazing feats, in the meantime, everyday social interaction could be improved upon—behaviors that could very well be a result of his different “ASD wiring.”
Imagine if music therapy can help rewire his pathways so he doesn’t run from a situation that becomes too overwhelming, hide under the table when things don’t go his way, or react to situations in such a bizarre way that his peers think he’s strange. While I don’t want to squash his creativity, his ability to focus on and learn about particular subjects, or his incredible humor, resolving some of these other behavioral issues could serve him well.
Recently, I attended the presentation Autism, Music Therapy, and other Neurological Disorders by music therapist, Kirsten Arbogast, MM, MT-BC, of Altitude Music Therapy Services in Salida, Colorado. During her presentation, she not only addressed the various reasons music therapy produces profound changes in children with ASD, but she also spoke of music’s ability to cater to the strengths that tend to accompany ASD, such as heightened auditory sensitivity, attention to detail, increased pattern recognition, craving for controlled multisensory experiences, and unique abilities pertaining to memory.
To be a successful musician, one must have all or most of these traits. To the child with autism, many of these traits are innate, a part of who he/she is and what might have led to his/her diagnosis in the first place. By incorporating music therapy into treatment, you are giving your child a gift, allowing his/her unique behavioral differences to give an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
During her presentation, Arbogast invited my son to participate. Despite the dozen or so people in the room, he happily beat a drum to one of his favorite melodies—In the Hall of the Mountain King—while keeping his attention solely on her. When she changed the beat, stopped the song, or asked him to follow her around the room, he did, without argument or distraction. As his mother, who knows all his quirks intimately, I was amazed.
Music, when combined with autism’s unique traits, has the power to “magically unlock” abilities buried deep within children on the autism spectrum. For example, music therapy research findings demonstrate that individuals with autism may show equal or superior abilities in pitch processing, labeling of emotions in music, and musical preference when compared to typically developing peers. Most notably, however, while neurotypical, musically gifted children display a number of distinguishing characteristics similar to children on the spectrum, one stands out—their abilities to memorize.
Musical potential is also measured by an individual’s sensitivity to the physical and emotional aspects of sound, or the ability to “think in sound,” a trait often reported by older individuals with autism who are able to comprehend and express their learning strengths. It’s what I suggested earlier of my son. When music is present, I see his face shift, his eyes focus, and the thoughts running wild in his mind.
There are few clear answers to our many autism-related questions. I constantly find myself wondering what “caused” my son’s brain to work the way it does or trying new methods for regulating or erasing some of his unwanted behaviors. I don’t expect music therapy to be a cure because I don’t believe a cure exists. My son is who he is. However, I can put him in environments where he shines, where his strengths take precedence over his faults. Given his affinity for music, I’m eager and excited to begin music therapy and to watch him blossom in ways we cannot yet imagine.
This article was featured in Issue 68 – ASD Strategies in Action