My Revelation About Music and Autism

My Revelation About Music and Autism

My aunt often comments that she has the funnest job in the world (although she uses better grammar than that).  She's a speech pathologist and works in a preschool classroom for kids with autism; her role is to help the language and communication skills move forward.  My oldest daughter helped out in her classroom for a couple days last year and confirmed my aunt’s “funnest job” assessment, although the miniature horse that was visiting at the time may have contributed to that conclusion.  While I don’t want to downplay how challenging her job is, it does seem like my aunt has a lot of fun with the kids.

She also happens to be one of my most loyal readers.  The other day while I was visiting with her, she mentioned that one of her incoming 3-year olds loves the J-Lo/Pitbull song “On the Floor”, and my aunt commented that she had purchased the song, pondering whether it was appropriate to play in a preschool classroom.

This stream of information caused my poor brain to sputter almost to a halt as it tried to process the questions that were raised.  Why do the autistic kids get to listen to dance club music when my non-autistic kids had to endure Barney during their own preschool days?  How did this toddler manage to dictate what music was played during her school day?  And how was it even possible for the youngster to develop such strong feelings for such a mediocre song?

Rather than articulate any of these questions, my actual response was simply to blink a few times and assure my aunt that the song in question doesn’t contain any significant profanity or overt sex- it’s just a fun song about J-Lo going clubbing, possibly with her own 3-year olds. 

But for some reason, the comment about using the song in her classroom got me thinking.  I generally think of music as being strictly for entertainment purposes, so I was intrigued by the idea that it could actually be used for educational or therapeutic reasons.  While this probably isn’t newsworthy to the parent of an autistic child, I found it fascinating.

My aunt explained that her purpose for using music, in this specific instance as well as others, is two-fold.  First, she wants to create a positive association for this child.  Obviously she’s been given some inside information to help her achieve this, but the idea is that the preschooler will begin to associate my aunt, her teacher, with this song that she loves and therefore also have positive feelings about seeing her teacher. 

This makes total sense.  If someone went to the trouble to learn my favorite song and had, for instance, John Legend playing when we met and several times thereafter, I would not only think that was a lovely gesture, but I would develop fond feelings for this person- and I’m not even autistic (and would not be at all offended if someone used this technique on me either).

Her second reason for using pop music in the classroom is more practical: it helps these kids, many of whom have communication challenges, learn to speak better.  As she put it, “the melody supports verbal recall and can facilitate the practiced production of connected speech.”  If that’s too clinical for you, she gave an example of a child who was only using single words to speak but one day spouted an entire line from a Beyoncé song.  Bingo!  They successfully used music thereafter to help boost the child’s speech. 

I did a little reading online and found a decent amount of support for music helping kids with autism in particular, and it warms my little heart that music can serve a purpose like this.  Maybe I’ll spend some time making a playlist for the 3-year old, and I’ll definitelybe adding it to the list of hundreds of ways in which I could make a career change to accommodate my interest in music (none of which I’ve actually done, of course).

If anyone has firsthand experience on this topic, I'd love to hear about it.  In the meantime, have a musical day!

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  • My background is in music therapy. There's a lot of research out there and a lot of work being done in classrooms by music therapists. When I was actually working in the field, I loved any chance I got to work with SLPs. The prescriptive use of music combined with the physiological and neurological understanding of oral-motor functioning can be a powerful thing!

    Google the terms music therapy language autism. :)

    ~ Chris

  • In reply to fromthebungalow:

    Chris, that is so interesting! I have done a little looking online and the concept is pretty logical; I've just never given it any consideration. Thanks for your thoughts!

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    Anyone who finds this article interesting (including me), should also read Oliver Sack's book Musicophilia. Music is just an amazing thing.

  • In reply to Ralph Weisheit:

    Ralph, I read your comment to my aunt and she was very enthusiastic about that book- can't wait to pick it up. Thanks for the recommendation!

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