How do individuals with autism react to speech vs. song?

I had a lady come up to me today after my choir concert and share that she had a young daughter who has autism.  She asked me if I had ever heard of a certain school in the area that specializes in students with developmental disabilities.  I told her about my choir program for the older students.  (I conducted a pilot program creating a choir with three classrooms, which serve older students.)  She smiled and said her daughter loved music and wondered how she could get music therapy.  I shared some information with her on how to contact the company I work for and see if her daughter could receive individual services.  I truly hope she will follow up since she smiled as she told me what happens when her daughter hears music.

I tell this story because it relates to a recent article I came across regarding music and individuals with autism.  For many with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is quite fascinating how they relate to music.  Most have impairments in the area of social engagement and repetitive motor movements, but some also have limited or no language.  Yet, what is fascinating, is these individuals with limited language abilities, do not demonstrate limitations when it comes to music.  Researchers for this study used two types of brain imaging:  magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).  While I am not familiar with the second form of imaging mentioned above, the researchers used it to “compare the structural organization and integrity of fiber pathways connecting temporal and frontal auditory language and music areas between autistic and control groups” (p.  962).  

The individuals with ASD for this study demonstrated significant language deficits based on standardized tests used to categorize and clarify each individual’s severity of impairment.  The control group contained typically developing individuals; however, the researchers noted that there was no standardized test available to categorize the control group.  Nonetheless, the researchers found that “the autism group did not differ from the control group on ratings of music affinity (p. 965).  Interestingly enough, the control subjects showed activity during speech, but the autism group showed less activity during speech.  For song, both groups showed activity with the autistic group having additional activity in the left part of the brain.

What does this mean for me as a music therapist?  In conclusion, the authors state that music and music therapy have potential for rehabilitative interventions for individuals with autism.  Statements such as these from researchers outside the field of music therapy further substantiate that music therapy can make a difference in language development for individuals with ASD.

Lai, G., Pantazatos, S. P., Schneider, H., & Hirsch, J. (2012).  Neural systems for speech and song in autism.  Brain: A Journal of Neurology 135, pp. 961 – 975.

Stephanie Morris

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC