To the Beat of His Own Drum: Why Children With Autism are Drawn to Music

Music, with all of its unique & tempting elements, captivates us in some undefinable way. It certainly captivates many children with autism. Children are often intrigued by either the rhythmic qualities of music or its melodic and harmonic forms. Some children are enamored by a specific instrument, like the guitar. Lyrics are an allure for some, while other children are compelled by one style of music or specific performer.  Music requires no translation.

We all understand music’s fundamental messages regardless of our musical inclinations. We innately understand what music implies: like identifying anxious, sad or romantic melodies.

Even a 12 month old may vocalize, hold a musical conversation and be understood by her parent… all without the need for words.

Children with autism are often inherently motivated to engage in musical experiences and it can often be a preferred medium to operate within. They thrive within structure and music. Non- invasively, music fulfills this need for structure and routine.

First of all, some children with autism seem to enjoy musical experiences because they seem to be “good at it”. This isn’t just pertaining to musical savants, which is a less common occurrence. Current findings do show that children with autism often perform better at certain musical skills than typical children. For example, their memory recall of music can be excellent, especially when instrumental is coupled with lyrics. Some individuals can recite or sing a song after only one or two listening experiences.

Songs can be powerful assistive tools for children with autism.

 A song is like a house and home.

A house provides safety, shelter and security for a child. A home provides security, comfort and develops self- identity/confidence out of daily routines, rituals and constancy. A song provides all of these requirements for the child with Autism. It has a structure that doesn’t change. Its rhythms, lyrics and melodies are constant and don’t need to change. Songs can therefore be ritualistic handrails. Their structure can be something a child can rely on, anticipate, and predict with ease and familiarity. The engaging qualities of a song, for example, can elicit and motivate a child to verbally respond and interact:

When children with autism are listening to or making music, they may live within the container of space and time that music offers. It can extend their focus for long periods of time.

Ask yourself this: when you listen to your favorite album or go to a concert you love, does your perception of time change? Does it speed up or slow down? Why do people listen to music on long road trips or during fitness regimes? 

Music makes time disappear because it alters our perception of time.

Now let’s talk about self confidence.

When we feel at ease and comfortable with an experience, and have the freedom to direct our own learning, we become more interested & more successful (for whatever that may mean for each particular individual). 

That in turn bolsters our self-confidence further and we are more likely to try something challenging. Maria Montessori, a well known and respected child educator, developed her teaching principles by initially observing children in non-disturbed, natural learning environments. She discovered that in a 3 hr. period, children will typically spend the first half hour doing something familiar and easy. They will then choose more challenging activities and engage themselves for long lengths, in deep concentration. This is followed by a reflective period (which often looks like wandering or day dreaming), and then they start the whole cycle over again.

In the same way, children with autism can elevate their self-confidence through experiences they feel successful in. They can also grow their love and interest in music because it is built on their compounding musical successes. A musical success might be 1) learning to play an instrument 2) deriving continued pleasure by singing a favorite song 3) dancing or 4) achieving the desired sound from a new drum or whistle. Positive, immediate reinforcement is always very effective in changing behavior and nurturing child development.

Music can be a positive re-enforcer that propels a child’s motivation to continue exploring the social world.  

What about the flip side? Surely there are some children with autism that do not show a fondness or interest of music? Do some even show disinterest or disdain for it? 

Yes. For some children with autism, music just isn’t a preferred medium. In other cases, avoidance of, or discomfort during musical experiences can often be attributed to one of the following reasons. For some, the musical environment can be too over-stimulating, and even disorienting.

These children may be exhibiting AUDITORY DEFENSIVENESS, which can be a common concern for many children with autism. In these circumstances, repeated exposure to musical frequencies in a controlled environment by a qualified music therapist, can diminish or eliminate this sensitivity to certain frequencies. Collaboration with an occupational therapist on implementation is often recommended.

For other children with auditory defensiveness, it’s often the delivery system that’s interfering with having a pleasurable music experience. Some parents mention that their child won’t tolerate music played in the car or on the music player at home. They may hate going to the auditorium at school for large assembles. In these circumstances, their processing of music can be muddled due to over tones, acoustics, reverberation, and the feedback from music equipment & intercom systems. A calmer, less stimulating environment with acoustic sounds may be all that’s required to re-frame a positive musical experience.

Lastly, some children with autism are not drawn to the typical musical route we are exposed to in childhood. For example, some young children may show no interest in nursery rhythm songs. They may prefer more sophisticated music, improvisation over songs, or exploring music on their own terms.

When children with autism are given freedom to direct, lead, and explore music at their own pace, their interest, ease and interaction sky-rockets.

Music therapists can assist children along in this musical & developmental journey. They are trained to be skilled observers and guides. By using music in a playful and motivational way, they create a safe space and trusting relationship, and target a child’s developmental goals.

Supportive improvisation, for example, nurtures self expression. A few purposefully placed notes on the piano communicates the invitation “come check this out” with a non threatening & non verbal delivery. It ignites curiosity. For all ability levels, we can seek out ways to engage with the ‘music child’ within.

Music has an inexplicable quality. It’s a language and a world that many children with autism seem to innately understand and want to express themselves through. The pleasure they derive from music making is inspirational and contagious. Just try doing something musical and watch the smile land on your face.