Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can find emotion in music

Most of us would agree that music and emotion go together.  What I know from personal experience is that for one person a song may have a strong emotional attachment, but for another person, the same song may not mean anything to them.  The emotional attachment may be related to past events in a person’s life and therefore it “speaks” to that person completely different from the next person.

Researchers Quintin, Bhatara, Poissant, Fombonne and Levitin (2011) studied the emotional perception of music in twenty-six high-functioning adolescents with ASD versus 26 typically developing (TD) adolescents.  Their findings showed that the adolescents with ASD scored similarly to their peers when the two groups possessed similar musical training, IQ and auditory recall based on standardized test scores.  The study included identifying four specific emotions, which were happy, sad, scared and peaceful.  All adolescents identified the emotions using unlabeled face cards; however, when presented with music, researchers used line drawings instead of picture cards.  Use of this type of procedure in research is to prevent bias and maintain integrity.  Participants tested individually giving verbal answers as to which emotion fit the music.  Although there was some difference between the ASD group and the TD, the findings were not significant when verbal IQ acted as a variable.

The researchers in this study wanted to “complement the existing, albeit scarce, literature on emotion perception in music in ASD and to discover whether the deficits in emotion recognition and categorization reported in the visual domain for individuals with ASD might also exist in the musical domain” (pp. 1248-1249).  They also looked specifically at those with damage to the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, in relation to the scary and peaceful music.  The researchers’ findings showed “emotion recognition in music among individuals with ASD differs from that in patients with damage to the amygdala, in the sense that individuals with ASD can recognize some musical emotions that patients with damage to the amygdala cannot recognize such as scary and peaceful music” (p. 1250).

As a music therapist, I think these findings are key to a greater understanding of individuals with ASD.  It may be possible for individuals with ASD to understand emotions through music.

Quintin , E., Bhatara, A., Poissant, H., Fombonne, E., & Levitin, D. (2011).  Emotion perception in music in high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.  Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 41, pp. 1240-1255.

Stephanie H. Morris

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC

Neurologic Music Therapist