I am so excited to share this post today!
Coming out of Malaysia is a choir specifically for children with autism to show that when given a chance children with Autism have unlimited potential. The charity supporting this choir is called Kidzcare. I will let the following video speak for itself!
I am not surprised that the choir sounds amazing. In my work with kids with Autism they constantly show an amazing understanding of pitch.
A lot of the kids I work with are somewhere on the very broad Autism Spectrum. Quite often, I recommend adapted music lessons rather than music therapy for these kids, as their musical abilities are or have the potential to be quite sophisticated. Adapted lessons also reach a lot of the goals we want to work on with them: self-esteem, independence, listening skills and following an external stimulus (the beat). Plus, it doesn’t hurt that learning music increases language and mathematical skills!
I started noticing that a lot of my adapted music students who have Autism have absolute pitch (also known as perfect pitch) or something very close to it. Absolute pitch is defined as the ability to accurately identify a given note in the absence of any other notes. This means I can play one note on the piano (or any instrument for that matter) and the student, without knowing the key or hearing anything else, can tell me which note I am playing. I started to wonder if this was because perfect pitch is actually more prevalent in Autism – or were we just seeing musical kids because we are a music studio? Had parents found us because they noticed their child’s musical abilities or we were seeing a microcosm of a larger trend in people with Autism?
Research shows that both people who are blind and people whose first language is a tone-based language (like Mandarin) DO have a higher prevalence of perfect pitch – actually much higher than the general population. I went on a search for research to back up my suspicions of this being true for people with Autism. It seems to be universally accepted that people with Autism do have perfect pitch a lot of the time, especially musical savants and people with higher-functioning Autism. A lot of the research, however, is qualitative (based on one individual) or focuses only on higher-functioning savant-like participants. One good (but slightly dated) article I found that compared a group of people with Autism to a neuro-typical control group was:
Bonnel, A. et al. (2003) Enhanced Pitch Sensitivity in Individuals with Autism: A Signal Detection Analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15-2, 226-235
They found that people with Autism DID score better than the neuro-typical group in identifying and categorizing pitches, suggesting that people with Autism not only have enhanced visual processing, but most likely also have enhanced auditory processing.
This could be one explanation why music therapists are having success using a technique called Melodic Intonation Therapy with pre-verbal children with Autism. MIT is usually reserved for working with stroke-recovery patients, using pitch repetition to not only recover speech, but also teach the correct intonation.
So, with our perfect or almost perfect pitch students, we are seeing a great propensity to quickly memorize songs and pick out melodies on the keyboard. Even with one of my lower functioning clients, his memory for pitch surprised me. One day I sang a new hello song to him, and had him sing along. Two weeks later, without hearing it again, he picked out the melody on the piano!
One challenge of working with kids with such good ears is that they want to rely on this talent because it is easier for them to play a song by ear than read the sheet music in front of them! A lot of these same kids have trouble reading in school, and so a big goal is to get them to read sheet music as it increases visual tracking skills.
Even with some challenges, having such a good ear is an amazing talent and I’m so glad these kids get to show off all of their hard work at the year end recital!
It makes me so happy to see that Malaysia has obviously figured it out – music really is the key to unlocking the potential for children with Autism!