Music and Autism: Are They Relate-able?

Does music help a child relate to others? How can music help us relate to others?  I noticed an article by Oliver Sacks this week that was very relevant to my thoughts on the subject. The article “The Musical Brain: Novel Study of Jazz Players Shows Common Brain Circuitry Process in Both Music, Language” essentially talks about the brain and the back and forth spontaneous conversation that goes on between jazz players as they participate  in “trading fours.” “The musicians introduce new melodies in response to each others musical ideas, elaborating and modifying them over the course of a performance.”

    I have written before about speech and Music Therapy; however, in order to use speech, one needs to be able to relate, pick up on unspoken cues, expressions of emotional, facial response, body language, and prosody of speech. Today, I would like to talk in layman’s terms about how relating in music makes these perceptions more visible for those who often do not see social cues and subtleties. There are non-verbal kids on the spectrum who can cognitively  develop speech through music, and sometimes fairly quickly at that. However, if the therapist only attends to the gains in speech, the child may be very limited in the functional use of speech. For example, the child may develop echohalic patterns, repeatedly recite novel or movie lines, or have the speech, but still not be able to use it effectively with others because they have not developed the abilities to read and process the basic emotional aspects of communication. Remember from earlier blogs the “Jack in the Box” effect where the child learns emotionally by his or her back and forth relating, facial signals, etc, with its mother. The more back and forth emotional signals the baby and caretaker exchange, the more sophisticated the signaling becomes, eventually developing speech. Without this well-developed emotional signaling, a child on the spectrum may still be able to develop speech, but it will appear stuck. The child may be able to ask for basic wants, but not be able to carry out longer, creative, spontaneous conversation. This may look something like “I want blue truck.” The child then sits down by himself, rolls the truck back and forth. A child with a little more language capacity says, “I want red truck.” This is as far as the basically solitary action goes. So how can one, in musical play, facilitate the child to extend this interaction?

We don’t need to speak the same language or use language at all to play music with another. These individuals don’t need technical musical skill in order to “play music” with another.  Whether we sing, move to, or play music WITH another, it is done in relationship with another. We have to be using those perceptions we learned earlier to relate. Lets use the example of watching a movie. Say you walked out of the room for 10 minutes, and as you were heading back, you could hear the background music and quickly picked up your pace because you could tell something big was about to happen. How did you know this? You missed the movie for 10 complete minutes. You could not see nor hear (lets say) what the characters were doing, yet you knew something big was about to happen. What you had unconsciously learned musically, even though you are not a musician, was that what was behind the movie told you something big was going to happen. Although not a musician, listening to children’s tunes as a young one and the teen music as you grew older, you unconsciously learned western musical patterns that made the music predictable for you. You learned these things without even knowing you learned them and you were able to infer information without knowing exactly what was happening in the movie.  You most likely learned this information in your recreation to tunes that accompanied other things that you possibly were attending to.

     Now let’s get back to the child on the spectrum who has not learned the patterns of emotional signaling well, but does have some speech. Say he says, “I want a blue truck.” The therapist then plays a happy sounding phrase that would sound similar to a child’s speech excitedly saying, “I want a blue truck.” The ASD child pays no apparent attention. As he rolls the truck back and forth on the floor, the therapist plays a tune that mimics this, and then as the boy gets up again, she plays an ending phrase that is typical in western music. The ASD child knows his words and actions are being imitated not only auditorily, but he can also feel the vibrations of the keyboard on the wooden floor matching his physical movement. As he gets up to ask for the red truck, the therapist repeats her “blue truck ” tune, only as she sings “I want a…….” She ends “a…” on the 7th tone (a tone that waits to be resolved as we sing, “Do re mi fa sol, la it – ” Our brain hears “do” even though we haven’ t sung it yet.) She holds this tone as the boy now says, “red truck”. She finishes her original “blue truck” tune. Still the boy continues on rolling the red truck, so the therapist continues the rolling part of the tune. This time, as he goes to get up, she again repeats the blue truck tune. As she gets to that 7th tone, there is a pause from the boy, then he says “yellow truck.” This time, as she reflects these words, he giggles. His rolling activity goes for a shorter period of time. The therapist then reflects this in her music. This time, the boy gets up and says “orange truck.” He looks at the therapist. As she reflects this, he giggles and the truck rolling becomes shorter than before.

Is this beginning to make sense? The boy is now more interested in seeing if she will do it again. Someone hears him and is imitating him, playing with him. He was not being asked to pick the red one or label the yellow one; someone was playing his game. This is new and relevant. It is on his safe time schedule to. The music she is playing has enticing excitement, pauses, predictable starts, and stops in it. It has phrasing that starts and stops with his playing actions. She has auditorily introduced a predictable sequence. He knows that when she gets to that 7th tone, she is waiting for him.The interacting has begun. He is at this point more interested to see if she will do it again than rolling that truck. For more information on this, watch for next week’s blog.

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC

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