Finding a voice: the benefits of learning to play music for children with autism

GregJohnson January 18, 2012 1

School Music LessonAs reported on the BBC News website, interactive technologies and games are becoming increasingly important outlets for autistic children and their families. Tailored to the needs of their focussed perception and tendencies for structure and repitition, apps such as FindMe give children with autism a pathway into activities and experiences they may otherwise struggle to cope with.

Similarly, music can offer children diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum a soothing and engagable medium away from the anxiety and stress of standard conversations and socialising.

As defined by Autism.org.uk, “autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways.”

For autistic children who struggle with social interaction, emotional awareness and speech, learning an instrument can be an incredibly liberating opportunity for self expression and non-verbal communication.

Music can create connections between the non-verbal parts of our brains. Combined with eye contact made whilst learning songs and exercises with a tutor or parent, some autistic children can begin to break down some of the intimidating social barriers ahead of them.

The reassuring structure and repetition that comes with practising and learning to play builds confidence and physical coordination.

Of course, every child’s position and severity on the autistic spectrum is different, as are their special and unique personalities. In more severe cases, just the sheer ability to make a sound or expressive outburst can be extremely powerful and fufilling for the child suddenly empowered by an instrument.

It is important to note however, that music isn’t right for every child with autism, just as it isn’t for everyone in general.

Due to a number of famous and well publicised cases, autistic children are at times expected to be savants, or tragically gifted musical geniuses cursed with some incredible, double-edged special talent. Whilst some people with autism do indeed show a remarkable aptitude for music and playing  instruments (often due to a hypersensitivity to external stimuli common with autism), it can be unhelpful to place such pressure and expectation on autistic children and their families.

Instead, music can be used purely for enjoyment, support and as a development aid. Socially for instance, and depending on confidence and ability, learning an instrument can potentially lead to playing with others in interactive jams, school bands and beyond!

Additionally, the psychological sense of accomplishment and reward from learning an instrument, especially for an autistic child, can set them up for other challenges and steps that may lie ahead in life.

Perhaps the key to harnessing all these benefits of music and musical instruments for autistic children is in their initial discovery and introduction to making music.

Although autism creates an urgent need for structure, routine and repetition, due to a ruthlessly focussed, narrow logic, little patience is spared for rules or concepts that require explaination or even the briefest exposition.

Demonstration and practical exercises are often best, requiring as little talking as possible. There are a number of sites and blogs full of ideas for introducing music to autistic children.

As many of the musicroom blog’s readers can attest, music is far more than just the enjoyable organisation of sounds and noises. For autistic children though, music can give them a voice!

Are you a parent of an autistic child learning to play an instrument? Perhaps you’ve had experience teaching a child or children with autism in the past? Please share your stories and experience in the comments box below.

Some helpful and related links

The National Autistic Society

Music For Autism

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

  • Anonymous

    My son has Asberger’s and he loves music. He would rather listen and work out how to play something by ear rather than read music , although he is doing well in exams (working on Grade 5 cello and grade 3 piano at age 11). He loves picking out tunes on a guitar or keyboard and when he is feeling a bit stressed will often go to his room and just make music on his keyboard.