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Music and autism

Teenage boy playing a guitar
Is there a special relationship between autism and music?

Autism and autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) are characterised by abnormalities in social interactions and communication and restrictive or repetitive behaviours. Music may play an important in the lives of people with autism - either through therapy or the special talents some display.

Music therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for ASDs. Therapies aim to improve self-awareness and awareness of others. It may also provide an opportunity to explore the expression of emotions.

There is some evidence that music can improve children's socialisation, particularly their communication skills. Anecdotally, positive responses have been reported by therapists and parents. However, very few rigorous, controlled trials of music therapy have been carried out, so it is difficult to say with certainty that music has long-term benefits.

It has also been suggested that people with autism have a particular affinity with music. Autism is unusual in that a proportion of people with the condition (around one in ten) show abilities inconsistent with their overall cognitive skills - sometimes, far in excess. One such skill is music. Some individuals may have better musical skills than might be expected, while a few may be prodigiously talented: musical savants.

As well as being gifted musicians, musical savants typically have special abilities, such as being able to memorise and recite a new piece of music having heard it just once.

Musical savants typically have perfect pitch. Interestingly, musicians with perfect pitch show some of the personality and cognitive characteristics typical of autism. The key may be the ability to deconstruct sounds, 'piecemeal information processing'. Genetic factors that contribute to autism could therefore be involved in perfect pitch abilities.

What might be going on? One idea is that, without the attention usually absorbed by social interactions, more of the brain's processing power can be devoted to other tasks, such as music. Another suggestion is that the repetitious behaviour characteristic of ASDs may be crucial: since elite performance depends on extensive practice, people with ASD may be well suited to the endless rehearsal needed to excel.

Australian researcher Allan Snyder goes one step further, arguing that everyone has hidden savant-like 'supertalents'. In most people, they are repressed, whereas an autistic savant can access them freely. To illustrate the phenomenon, he has used a technique that temporarily disrupts brain activity (transcranial magnetic stimulation), when applied to a specific region of the brain, to enhance normal people's skills at drawing from memory.

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