Reaching out through pitch and rhythm

Sunday, 2nd March 2014 - By Valerie Benguiat

crowd piano

When my niece was born we were all rejoiced. It's hard not to be, a new life coming into this world, so small, frail and lovely. But the special circumstances made it even more magical. The pregnancy was a high risk one -with her mother and father being well over 40- so as a year went by and the signs started showing, we were all devastated, because we knew.

My niece had autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It's characterized by impairments to conduct normal social interactions; it impairs communication, and has some repetitive patterns of behavior. Experts estimate that 1 in 88 children have ASD. In young children, autism is diagnosed by lack of attempts to communicate, poor eye contact and unresponsiveness, among other behaviors. It's not clear what causes autism, but needless to say, realizing your child suffers from ASD, is an incredibly hard blow.

There's heartbreak and frustration, knowing that your little girl is panicking over apparently simple things -learn how to go potty, blowing her nose, putting on clothes- and that you cannot provide comfort. How, if your voice tone means nothing, if your soothing gestures cannot be interpreted? How can you overcome the fact that any little thing that happens can throw her into a fit where you can't reach her?

It can get better with the appropriate treatment and support.

Music therapy is being proven to help children, teenagers and young adults with ASD to develop communication abilities and attentive behavior. Rhythm, singing and playing instruments helps to enhance emotional recognition, which is a characteristic deficit in people who suffer ASD.

Music has been especially useful to help with social and emotional cues, that people with autism struggle with. Young children with ASD, for example, don't smile back and don't react to coos. As they grow, they will also fail to react to subtler vocal and facial expressions, which will make social interactions awkward, to say the least. Through music, the children can learn to recognize and imitate pitch, rhythm and tones through music, a practice that mimics recognizing vocal tones in social cues.

Socio-behavioral therapy, like music, can make everyone's life better. Active music is preferred, and it has shown to:

  • Increase attention, because music is great!
  • Increase socialization by sharing music with other children and with family
  • Improve behavior and decrease destructive repetition, by diverting focus
  • Decrease anxiety and agitation by focusing on a pleasant activity
  • Improve verbal skills as a result of following lyrics and recognizing pitches
  • Better motor skills as a result of following rhythms to play instruments and dancing

  • My niece started to go to her music therapy as soon as she was diagnosed, and slowly she has become less withdrawn and seems to have better eye contact. You can tell that she recognizes a couple of voices -mommy, granny- and it's thanks to music. It's a slow process and she will struggle with social interactions probably for the rest of her life, it's hard to say. But we're all working on it, and that's what matters.

    Image: Eva Rinaldi