Music is a form of communication. Music conveys feelings and if the composition has lyrics, music also expresses itself through words and ideas that are reinforced by the moods created from tone and beat. Learners on the autism spectrum are not impervious to the communication expressed through music. People with autism can perceive moods in music and respond appropriately. These are connection gains between an autistic person’s inner reality and their external environment. Music is that bridge to enable an exchange of expression that is the basis for forming satisfying relationship, including self-awareness and understanding one’s own emotions.
In our previous article, Autism Daily Newscast looked at the benefits of music therapy as a therapeutic intervention. There are studies to support these clains. The 2009 article, Autism, Music, and the Therapeutic Potential of Music in Alexithymia by Rory Allen and Pamela Heaton, discusses the results of numerous studies analyzed in relation to music therapy and autism. The article explains that people with autism are indeed impacted by the various moods created through music. By learning which emotion corresponds to which tone (major or minor tones, for example), students with ASD come to understand the different moods and emotions. This ability to associate an emotion to a musical tone is used to teach autistic learners how to interpret facial expressions and tones of voice by matching the expression and/or tone of voice with the appropriate musical tone. This can stimulate awareness of emotion and develop nonverbal communication and understanding.
This same article explains that people on the autism spectrum listened to music to meet their social and emotional needs. People on the autism spectrum reported feeling either calm or excited when listening to music, depending on which arousal they were seeking. Although the article used this information to compare it with neurotypicals who reported feeling either happy or sad, the findings support another reason music therapy prevails in reaching learners with autism. Feelings of anxiety, which hinders learning and receptivity on many levels and often expresses itself through repetitive behavior, can be calmed through music. The therapeutic aspect of music is intentional in creating different moods that correspond with the needs and tasks at hand. Engagement is paramount.
Music also establishes a common ground between the person with autism and the therapist. The article states that:
“there is clear evidence that [people] on the autism spectrum are sensitive to music’s emotional and social dimensions.”
With music as a choice, nonthreatening meeting place for the learner and the teacher, communication skills can be developed. Even if learners with autism have difficulty communicating their emotions, music therapy can be used to identify emotions and associate them with facial expressions, tones of voice, and for introspective awareness. Through recognition, a learner with autism can grow in emotional and social awareness and competence, as well as develop behavior management by identifying emotions that would produce unwanted behaviors.