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Good to Know: Making Connections through Music for Children with Autism

“Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase!” Aaron sings out in excitement. It’s movie Monday at Aaron’s house and today he is watching his favourite, Disney’s “The Lion King”. He’s seen the movie about a thousand times but to him it never gets old. His eyes are glued to the screen but his body is acting the parts, he’s able to recite just about every line and song which he repeats both with and without the movie on. Ask him a question about the plot or complexities of the characters and he can answer anything. Not bad for a kid who has difficulty with empathy, connecting socially with peers, or even verbalizing a sentence.

Aaron was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder one year ago, when he was just 3 years old. But it’s hard to define exactly what that means. His behaviour seems to be full of contradictions. He has trouble with paying attention when given verbal direction, yet he can stay fixated on a movie for hours. He has trouble understanding emotion when connecting with his peers, but he follows every emotional twist experienced by the characters from his favourite shows. So what do movies and television shows have that may be lacking in his regular daily interactions? Could music be a way to connect some of the autism pieces?

Even though kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulties with social, language and movement skills, many of them have an incredible knack for music. There is a growing body of research that highlights a variety of musical affinities that many children with ASD possess.

Understanding Emotions

Although children with ASD often have difficulty understanding emotional cues in face to face interactions, studies show that they have no difficulty understanding emotion conveyed through music. They can remember the most amazing details and have no trouble understanding the character’s emotions or story development. Perhaps it’s because media such as movies and television rely so heavily on musical scores to tell the story.

Musical Acuity

Many children with ASD also display incredible pitch perception and musical memory. Parents and researchers report that children with ASD have an incredible memory for music and are able to both recite and identify musical melodies accurately. Some therapists estimate that 60% of people with ASD have perfect pitch as opposed to a very small percentage of the general population.

Following Musical Directions

Music has a greater impact on people with ASD than speech. One study demonstrated that stimulation of the brain region important for understanding speech and language was more active during song stimulation than speech stimulation. There is also more connectivity between brain regions during song stimulation. So it stands to reason that children with ASD may be more likely to follow musical directions than verbal instruction.

These are just a few of the exciting musical abilities that have been explored in recent autism research. While there is still so much to be learned, it is clear that music could be a powerful tool that children with ASD can use to connect to the world around them.

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