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Understanding autism

10 years ago

  What does it mean to be severely autistic and why do some children demonstrate exceptional musicality? Professor Adam Ockelford explains. Autism refers to a spectrum of developmental disabilities that affect the way people think, feel and interact with their environment and others.  Some autistic people can function independently and engage in musical activities as they wish. Others find the world a confusing place: they may have little or no language, consider anything outside a familiar routine problematic, and find relationships a source of anxiety. Their capacity to engage with music may be unaffected, though, or even enhanced. Why should this be? How are teachers to know what constitutes potential musicality amid a probable welter of eccentric behaviours? And what should they do about it?

Why do some children with autism develop exceptional musical abilities?

Most children engage with sound in three ways: as speech, as music and as a feature of the environment. Some autistic children, though, seem to process many sounds, irrespective of their function, as music. This arises because of the way the ‘autistic mind’ works, the prevalence of music in the environment, and the structure of music itself. In terms of mental functioning, severely autistic children often show highly developed auditory discrimination, including, in about 5% of cases, absolute pitch. Almost invariably, they are captivated by pattern (repetition and regularity), but find the semantics and symbolism of verbal language challenging. Turning to music, my research shows that pieces of all genres are, astonishingly, 80% repetitive, and not just in relation to the recurrence of motifs and themes. Every element of music – pitch, duration, dynamic and timbre – is supersaturated with repetition. Unlike language, whose words point beyond themselves to things in the ‘real world’, musical notes point only to each other, and they do so over and over again: the meaning of music is in the repetitive, abstract patterns of relationships between them. Finally, the environment. Musicpsychological research shows that young children are exposed to music about 80% of the time, whether emanating from toys, computers, ring-tones, the television, radio or even other humans! Little wonder, then, that the pattern-loving autistic mind, seeking to make sense of the world, attracted to sound but confused by language, and surrounded by music, latches on to this intoxicating source of order and predictability.

How can you recognise exceptional musicality in severely autistic children?

As well as through their enjoyment of music, children’s potential musicality may be apparent reactively, through the qualities of sounds being more important than their function, or an obsession with listening to certain patterns of sound time and again (playing a fragment of recorded noise, speech or music repeatedly – making sounds into musical patterns through repetition, or reinforcing pre-existing musical structures). A child’s musicality may also be evident through their proactive reproduction of sounds as though they were music: using everyday objects to make musical sounds and perhaps organising them by the sound they make (lining up glasses according to their pitch). The children may repeat vocal patterns obsessively and organise words using the principles of musical syntax – by repeating them – so-called ‘echolalia’. They may sing beautifully in tune, perhaps copying the qualities of voices rather literally, and often repetitively (sometimes on account of ‘earworms’ – tunes that circle in one’s head). And they may try to reproduce musical (and nonmusical) sounds on any instruments that are to hand, sometimes learning to play by ear, though often with an idiosyncratic technique.

What should teachers do?

Although often regarded as the province of music therapy, there is no reason why music teachers should not work successfully with severely autistic children. Being empathetic and interactive is the key.

  • Open your ears to the possibility that all sound can be heard as music; listen out for patterns and relish repetition.
  • Interact through music as though it were language: imitate what your pupils do, exactly at first, and then make changes; give them the sense that they are influencing you; present them with fascinating musical fragments to copy; dialogue in sound; improvise simultaneously.
  • Support children in developing the technique they need to produce whatever they can hear in their heads: model the necessary movements for them; encourage them to attend to what you do by looking, listening and feeling; offer physical guidance.

ABRSM offers a number of standard arrangements for candidates with specific needs. We also offer the Performance Assessment, an option that may be more suited to some autistic pupils.


Adam Ockelford is Professor of Music at Roehampton University, UK, and is the author of ’In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini’ (Hutchinson, 2007), and ‘Music for Children and Young People with Complex Needs’ (OUP, 2008).

This article was originally featured in the September 2010 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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