Music and Autism

Music and Autism: A better language

The Artisan of Change

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is an invisible battle, a silently coiling spring. The daily expectations of a linguistic world. Social interaction can induce a smattering of social anxiety in even the most bone fide “neurotypical” of this world. I have recently felt such little drips in my not so waterproof existence. When meeting friends for the harmless act of drinking I will arrive, immediately roll a cigarette and high tail it to the smoking area to inspect the guttering. It could be the hours of confinement with nothing but the GUI’s in my DAW for company (a DIY musicians life isn’t quite as rock and roll as it used to be). More likely it’s mental preparation for an unpredictable social occasion. Coping mechanisms come in all shapes and sizes, for better or for worse.

I have been lucky to work musically with students with additional needs for over eight years now and I specialise in using musical techniques and songwriting to address social and emotional difficulties. My aim is to develop communication and enable creativity, to allow students with learning disabilities to express themselves and feel more included in a society that still has a limited understanding of the challenges they face. For someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) two of the key pillars of difficulty are social interaction and communication and I have witnessed first hand the power of music, to help manage and overcome these issues in a number of circumstances.

While teaching music at an SEN college I worked with a student who suffered with echolalia. Echolalia being the repetition or mimicking of words or phrases as opposed to self-generative, spontaneous speech. When asked “how are you?” student A would reply “how are you?” When given a choice of pictures he would choose the last one shown, when smiled at he would smile. Student A was diagnosed with ASD however, at a younger age he was able to verbally communicate without echolalic responses. At the time of working with him his echolalia became the entirety of his verbal and non verbal interaction.

Echolalia is a useful tool in learning and a natural part of language acquisition in children. It is common in people with ASD however student A’s case is different from usual cases, in that the onset of his echolalia occurred after he had acquired a degree of language and communication skills. This indicated a regression or an opting out as hypothesised by the therapy team. Potentially a coping mechanism to avoid the challenges of communication. Whatever the reason, his echolalia had effected his ability to communicate choice to such a degree that he no longer had autonomy in his life. Silently guided from lesson to lesson and over time paid less and less attention.

It was not difficult to see that student A enjoyed music. He would smile spontaneously in music sessions and although he was unable to ask to sing into the microphone or try instruments, when he did so through turn taking activities he would appear enthusiastic and elated. As opposed to his usual quiet and nervous demeanour. The first breakthrough was with a greeting song, where with week on week repetition and musical cues (explained later) A stated his name without staff modelling. He responded best though to improvisation where language was removed entirely.

A would verbalise “ooohs” into the microphone with very little prompting, surprised and intrigued by the feedback from the speakers. This was reinforced with musical accompaniment and he was able to sing louder and vary his pitch without modelling or prompts. He would strum a guitar when it was placed on his lap, bang a drum at his feet. His enthusiasm in group music sessions led to one to one sessions to focus on decreasing echolalia. This resulted in a localised departure from echolalia in music sessions. He displayed clear choice and would state the activity he desired. He sang in a variety of ways. He could point at an emotion that he was feeling from choice boards and choose “I don’t know” when he was unsure. Music had done what no other therapeutic intervention had yet. It offered a new language, a language that is intuitive and playful and one that A liked the sound of.

Music has the ability to mystify us but it also has the converse ability to make clear. An unresolved musical passage creating tension can stimulate a response in almost anyone with a pulse and this response can be meaningfully reinforced with harmonic resolution. For the musicians reading this a simple expression of this could be the chord progression; C, F and G (I, IV, V). The progression has therapeutic value when the qualities of these chords are considered (Home, sub-dominant and dominant). If sufficient musical tension is created by playing the 4 and 5 chords the a sub conscious need for resolution to the 1 chord can lead to input verbally or otherwise from the individual with no other prompts. The music can then resolve to the home chord and forms a non verbal reward or reinforcer for the behaviour.

Thats all a bit of a mouthful I know but what it boils down to is that music can be the word you cant find, the gesture you never made, the dissipation of pressure, the distraction from anxiety, a respite from the hard eye of education, a resolution from tension, an easier idiom. A better language.

Written by

Ben Eakins - writer for Artisound

Ben is the founder of Specialist Music Service Brighton

and the singer songwriter/ producer Reins