My interest in the relationship between music and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) began after meeting a few exceptional children during my studies in music therapy at Concordia University before moving to Ottawa.
While interning at a special school I was introduced to several children on the spectrum with perfect pitch. These children had amazing abilities in discriminating pitches from one another, remembering pitches and melodies, and learning to play instruments. In one instance, the music therapist (MT) I was shadowing asked a child who had just entered the room to listen to three notes played simultaneously on bells and to identify the pitches on the piano. The child, who was seven at the time, casually sat down at the piano and picked out each of the notes one by one, something that only highly-trained musicians can do with any accuracy or consistency.
The others were just as incredible. They would play along on the piano with songs they had only heard once before or pick out the pitch of a whirring fan in the room next door on the piano. One would remember the pitch of the first note of our introductory song from week to week. These little ones had communication, behavioural, and social difficulties and yet, in some of the most basic musical skills, they surpassed what the vast majority of adults can do.
My interest in this relationship between ASD and innate musical talent grew and I started investigating it. As it turns out, there is some good research about the exceptional talents of some children on the spectrum. Here’s a short summary:
Jones et al., The Institute of Education in London, 2010:
This study tested 72 adolescents with ASD against a control group for pitch discrimination skills, asking them to distinguish which of two pitches was higher, louder, and longer. The results concluded that about 20% of those in the ASD group performed well above average on the question of which pitch was higher. In other words, some of the adolescents with ASD had an amazing gift for discriminating between different notes.
Bonnet et al., McGill University, 2009:
This study was similar to the one cited above. However, this study emphasized that the enhanced pitch discrimination capabilities of some people on the spectrum seems to be linked with language delay. In short, those with ASD who have language delays may also have an enhanced capability for pitch discrimination.
Stanutz et al., McGill University, 2014:
This study shows even more conclusively that children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrate elevated pitch discrimination ability as well as enhanced long-term memory for melody. Again, the link with language development was emphasized in this study: ”The results indicate an aspect to cognitive functioning that may predict both enhanced nonverbal reasoning ability and atypical language development.”
So why does this matter?
Well, for one thing it’s interesting. Some of these researchers are proposing that heightened awareness of pitch may actually be an obstacle for some children with ASD in their normal language development. That is, for some, an increased focus on the sound of speech might hinder the process of understanding language.
For our purposes though, this matters because music is an area where some children on the spectrum can really be successful. They have skills that are amazing and desirable. They may have some other deficits, but those challenges can be faced by emphasizing the unique skills that the child does have, boosting that child’s confidence, and making sure that they know that they are exceptional.
Bonnel A, McAdams S, Smith B, Berthiaume C, Bertone A, Ciocca V, Burack JA, & Mottron L (2010). Enhanced pure-tone pitch discrimination among persons with autism but not Asperger syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 48 (9), 2465-75 PMID: 20433857
Jones CR, Happé F, Baird G, Simonoff E, Marsden AJ, Tregay J, Phillips RJ, Goswami U, Thomson JM, & Charman T (2009). Auditory discrimination and auditory sensory behaviours in autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychologia, 47 (13), 2850-8 PMID: 19545576
Stanutz, Sandy, Joel Wapnick, and Jacob A. Burack. "Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorders." Autism 18.2 (2014): 137-147.