Autism and Music: Adagio to Allegro
Early in my career, I was introduced to three young autistic students who were hyper-focused on video games, had speech delays and impediments and displayed obsessive-compulsive behaviors and ruminations. What transpired for these young men not only threw what I learned from textbooks and graduate studies out the window but it changed my view and forged a new path. One word...drums...YES, I said it. Drums! Percussion instruments such as drums and piano evoke upon the innate sense of rhythm we are born preprogrammed with. What do I mean? Think about the rhythmic movement of a baby kicking, the pattern a toddler can display (naturally) when dancing or swaying to music or the way a child can naturally take a pot and kitchen utensils to make music on the kitchen floor. The idea of children, that are most likely hypersensitive to loud sounds, being introduced to the very instrument that makes loud sounds boggles the mind. However, it has the opposite effect you would imagine. It is amazing to see someone actually calm and smiling rather than rocking, screaming and covering their ears (which the latter I had prepared myself to see).
In recent years, the documented cases of children diagnosed as autistic across the spectrum have increased significantly. The most recent statistics record that 1 in every 59 children will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder - found in all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic levels, with boys being four times more likely to be diagnosed. What is also staggering is the statistics showing that 1 in every 6 American children will be diagnosed with some form of cognitive/developmental disorder (MMWR, 2018).
The triggers or defining factors that may be the culprit of onset have been listed as vaccines, in utero exposure to environmental toxins, genetic predisposition or mutation. While there are many theories circulating as to the cause of the ever-encompassing diagnosis of autism, as we state in science, correlation does not mean causation. While I could write a more annotative paper on autism, the purpose of this blog is to share the amazing impact I have seen music have on autistic students across the spectrum, with students who are verbal and/or nonverbal.
Much like a heavy blanket or vest, the sound produced by the snare and bass drum creates a rumble of sound waves that mimics a tight hug, enveloping the person. Sound enters the body through the ears, but where does it go from there? The sound waves are propelled through the inner ear and are processed by the temporal lobe portion of the brain. Where is the temporal lobe, you ask?! So glad you did. Take your index finger and touch each side of your head just above your ear lobe. Trace your fingers up about 2 inches and across in either direction by 2 inches (you do this on both sides of your head) and you have just come in intimate contact (albeit through your skull) with your temporal lobe. The temporal lobe processes language, influences long term memory, music and rhythm, processing facial expression and voice inflection as well as produces positive (right side) and negative (left side) emotions and mood stability.
Because the right temporal lobes are associated with music, one way to soothe dysfunction across populations is music and rhythm. This includes not just listening to music, but also singing, playing an instrument, dancing, or reading rhythmic poetry. As the beat or rhythm is produced from the drum enters the brain, it is also absorbed in the sinuses, the thoracic cavity and with repetitive movements of the arms, wrists, legs, and feet, which provides the autistic student with a system of operations or routine that becomes predictable in the beginning. Once the basics, technique, and rudiments are learned, the student then can and is encouraged to develop creative combinations. This is when tone, color, and texture stimulate other areas of the brain and the student’s personality and interests can be used to influence style. We witnessed young students who would have attention issues and outbursts become confident, focused, creative musicians that were able to develop social relationships with bandmates as well as connect with their audience.
Music is a universal language and I see the magic movement and rhythm can have across the board with the special needs students and the group classes I direct with the ARC of Southern Maryland. I see and hear nonverbal students vocalize in a microphone their interpretation of a ballad or rock out to a pop/rock/country hit. I see those who are not easily mobile, stand up and use their walkers as they dance to the tempo of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”. These are times when the purest form of joy is demonstrated without filters, limitations, and rules.
What a difference those early interactions made on my approach to teaching and my understanding of music and the brain. All my preconceived notions of developmental cognitive function across age that were gleaned from books, lectures and term papers were completely disproven by practical application. Our existence is completely surrounded by music, whether a whisper from wind going through a leafy tree branch, the sounds of children singing as they jump rope, the sound of rain across the roof that is accented by thunder and the theatrics of lightning.
While autism does impact the individual’s social cues/interaction/constructs, expressive and receptive speech development, obsessive and repetitive behaviors and emotional regulation/stability, these are the people most in tune with those areas of the brain that process and produce music, art, and dance. How you view the world and others are all about your perspective and experiences. Life can mimic the shift from Adagio to Allegro, you can live as slow or as fast as you want, but your conductor (brain) is going to set the initial tempo and it is through experience, opportunities, information, hard work and dedication that will ultimately direct the speed/pace of your symphony.
If you have a child/family member who can benefit from our music lessons, please definitely reach out to use. If you would like to see how music can change your quality of life and perspective, call us at (410) 286-5505 or email info@garrettmusicacademy and we will start the journey with you.
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P.S. I would love to hear your feedback about this blog. Feel free to comment below.