Autism is a wide, all-encompassing term that covers a variety of conditions, most of which include a difficulty in connecting with others through communication and relationship skills. First diagnosed in 1943 by the pioneering psychiatrist Leo Kanner, autism has been studied for over half a century, with researchers continuously discovering new methods to help care for those on the spectrum. For example, several studies have shown that children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are more likely to have certain sensitivities to noises than neurotypical children. Whether they are hyper-sensitive (overly-stimulated) or hypo-sensitive (under-stimulated) to sound, many children suffer from sensitivity issues, which may last throughout their lives. Despite this apparent sensitivity toward sound, music can play a remarkable role in the development of children on the spectrum, and it has the unique ability to allow children to express emotions and practice social skills.
Naturally, every child is different. There is no ‘fix all’ to cover every child with SEN—in fact, it is down to you, the parents, to try out a variety of methods and find out what works best for your little one. However, music is as universal as it comes for humans. A psychological study from Rory Allen discovered groups of children with and without autism reacted to music in the same way psychologically. This could be because our reactions to music are on a level that is independent of emotional understanding or imagination, two of the areas that are a struggle for those on the spectrum. Instead, music takes us out of these boundaries and connects with us on a much deeper psychological level, which transcends any special educational needs. As a result of this, it quickly becomes apparent how music can play a key role in the development of children with ASD.
Having long been viewed as a key learning technique for children, music is with us at every stage of life—from singing children to sleep at night, to learning the alphabet through rhyme, to singing nursery jingles designed to get children speaking and singing. As we grow older and our musical tastes adapt to include certain genres and styles, children remain focused on the rhythms and beats. That isn’t to say they will like anything with a rhythm—far from it (try playing heavy metal music to a baby, and chances are, you’ll be dealing with a crying child). However, simple repetitive beats attract attention and encourage children to mimic what they’re hearing. At the psychological level mentioned by Rory Allen, we all react to music in the same way. Viral music videos are a perfect demonstrator of this. Think back a few years to the phenomenon that was Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style.’ Despite the fact the song is sung entirely in Korean, look back at the hundreds of videos parents across the world took of their children dancing and attempting to sing along. Even when we can’t understand the words themselves, it’s the music that speaks to us in a universal language.
Music is intrinsically within us all, from the rhythmic beating of our hearts, to clapping and slapping anything we can as a toddler, to adulthood, where the average person will listen or hear music in one form or another.
While all children are unique with their own quirks, styles, and characteristics, sound remains a dependable tool to use during their formative years and beyond. From getting children to open up for the first time as toddlers, listening to smooth jazz for its relaxing properties, or simply having a dance break to relieve stress, music has a place in every family. The key is finding the best method to use sound with your child. There are a number of ways to do this, but whichever way you choose, it’s best to build a familiar routine in order to forestall any unnecessary surprises. Through each sound session, it should quickly become apparent what is and isn’t working, allowing you to adapt on the fly and meet your child’s needs as well as you can.
One way to introduce music to younger children is through the many picture books available on the market. A number of these include fun, engaging, rhyming texts to carry the story along. One recent release is Jungle Jam, written by husband and wife Louise and Noam Lederman. The story follows a special, singing monkey who dreams of becoming a jungle superstar. On his journey he meets other musical animals and learns about the importance of teamwork and collaboration. The book introduces instruments and their sounds to young readers and even has a ‘do-it-yourself’ section, which encourages readers to create their own, homemade instruments with household items. Louise Lederman spent years working at the UK’s National Autistic Society. Using this experience and knowledge, she has ensured Jungle Jam is fit for SEN readers—not only in the way it’s written, but also through bright, engaging illustrations to attract and retain children’s attentions.
Children’s television also retains these aspects: bright, bouncy characters energetically bound around the screen with a variety of musical interludes and sing-along moments. Through any number of shows currently airing on cable or YouTube, it’s easy to find clips to help your child ease his/her mind and become absorbed in the sights and sounds. Another option to introduce music into children’s lives is to allow them the chance to experiment with the various sounds that can be created with objects around the house. Tying into the DIY section at the end of the Jungle Jam book, this is a great way to allow children to discover various noises and rhythms that can be created, and subsequently, they will get lost in these new sounds. If your child is hyper-sensitive to sound, it is very likely they won’t be willing to experiment this way. This is nothing to worry about: simply work with what you know about your child to find a way that suits their independent needs.
Music draws out communication from non-verbal children and further stimulates those who are verbal to integrate better into society. While non-verbal children may still not speak, they might begin to express themselves through their body, gesturing toward their favorite instruments or dancing along to the beats. With the innate musical tendencies within all of us, music is now used to help people with various conditions, such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, and depression. The inherent nature of sound and music’s ability to reignite emotions and memories from years’ past also makes it a wonderful tool for helping seniors reminisce and recall events tied to certain pieces of music. The human memory can be jogged by the smallest things: a visual clue, a relatable scent, or a rhythmic beat. The brain works in mysterious ways, and, by taking advantage of this, we are able to work with those who may otherwise struggle with typical social interactions.
However you choose to do it, music is one of the best tools available to bring your child out of his/her own world, encouraging social skills and engagement with others. No matter the importance that you decide to place on it, musical stimulation and a musical collaboration between you and your child can lead to greater interactions overall. With the research into how both verbal and non-verbal children on the autism spectrum react psychologically to musical stimuli and the clear visible effects it can have through singing or dancing alongside the instrumentals, it is evident that certain types of music provoke specific reactions. Music therapy is an option available for parents, but everyone should be taking advantage of the therapeutic effect music can play. It will certainly cost much less to experiment with sounds at home than it would for a session of musical therapy. The most important thing to remember throughout is that spending time with your child creating or utilizing music is ultimately supposed to be a fun way of learning, communicating and helping each other grow as people.
Louise Lederman is the author of the children’s book Jungle Jam and also sits as director at VVinner Music, a music publishing platform founded by her husband, Noam. Prior to this, Louise had a successful career in marketing, which included working for a number of the UK’s largest charities, including the National Autistic Society. Now focusing on her writing, Jungle Jam is the first in a planned series of children’s books that seeks to introduce music to young readers.
This article was featured in Issue 58 – The Greatest Love of All: Family