Music and Autism: A Beautiful Connection

Did you know Mozart was autistic?


Composer and pianist Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most well-known and prolific musician of his time, having composed more than 600 symphonies, operas, and concertos. At the age of four, his parents recognized he had an inexplicable and distinctive way of learning and remembering music, learning a piece within the space of half an hour. By the age of six, he had begun composing, and at eight, he was creating symphonies.


Mozart had perfect musical memory. He could read music like no adult of his time. And his hearing was so delicate and sensitive that if exposed to loud sounds, he would become violently, physically ill.


His genius, his sensory sensitivities, his challenges with impulse control, and his dangerous behaviors – these were all signs of his disorder.


And perhaps it was not despite autism, but because of it, that the world was blessed with his genius.


Music – and music therapy – has become an increasingly beneficial part of the therapy process for people who have been diagnosed with autism. Experts have found that music helps soothe, as well as provides a means of engagement and communication.


Ethnomusicology professor Michael Bakan told U.S. News in 2018 that after experiencing the effects of music on a young autistic relative, he sought out to explore what it might mean to actually create music with those on the spectrum. Through the Music-Play Project (an innovative medical ethnomusicology program designed to connect unusual musical instruments to autistic people for a unique therapeutic environment) and the Artism Ensemble, which partnered autistic kids and their parents with professional musicians, Bakan sought out to show the world just what music can do for people on the spectrum, and how very important music is a form of communication.


“I think music allows you to more purely engage with the act of communication than spoken dialogue does,” Bakan told reporters. “The kind of rules of etiquette and the kind of social demands are actually much looser in a music-making environment, and especially if it’s a music-making environment where there isn’t a predetermined outcome.”


Bakan shared that because language can be misinterpreted – because even though certain words mean certain things, connotations and gestures can so easily be misunderstood – those with autism may either be anxious receiving or giving verbal, spoken communication. Music, on the other hand, can be considered a more sympathetic, meaningful way to interact and communicate.


His work has proven that many autistic people are sensitive, attentive listeners, and thus are more socially responsive to musical cues, even in improvised situations. He shares that all people respond to music in an emotional way, which is why music is so meaningful to everyone, regardless of our neurological configurations, but that it is particularly powerful and evocative for the person on the spectrum. “In autism,” he said, “there are qualities of empathy and qualities of being to listen to what a lot of us aren’t hearing.


“And there does seem to be some kind of an imaginative capacity to not just draw symbolic associations between different realms of experience but to actually merge different realms of experience into something holistic.


“Those kinds of imaginative associations, those large-scale ways of connecting the dots in a way (neurotypical people) wouldn’t normally do, they have to do it. It leads to some very interesting images and ideas that we read about in the way that they tell their stories.”


How do I help my child with musical instruction at home?


Whether or not you’re actually teaching your autistic child an instrument or simply using music as a way to engage or soothe them, here are some tips and techniques to help them build their cognitive abilities and provide them with a source of personal pleasure.


1. When working on speech imitation, have your child tap their hand to a beat with every syllable.


2. Introduce a reward system filled with musical references. Instead of star-shaped stickers, for example, look for piano, guitar, or music note stickers.


3. Get silly! Sing in a high-pitched tone, make up sound effects, or bring out the piano mat and start making music with your feet.


4. Sing or make music while completing otherwise “boring” tasks. Have your child hum a two-minute tune while brushing their teeth to ensure they’re brushing long enough, or sing their three favorite songs while cleaning up their bedroom.


5. Use a multi-sensory approach by incorporating visual and auditory learning. Ask your child to paint what they hear, for example.


Music, at its core, provides a structured and beautiful way to present and absorb information. Those with autism are able to use melody and rhythm patterns to organize auditory information. It’s been proven that music can actually help the person on the spectrum with memorization, task sequence, and recognition of academic facts, but above and beyond that, music has been found to help the person with autism make important connections in their relationships with family members and friends.

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