Music Studies Reveal Startling Facts about Autism

From a study by P. Heaton, B. Hermelin, and L. Pring:

Children with autistic spectrum disorders typically show impairments in processing affective information within social and interpersonal domains. It has yet to be established whether such difficulties persist in the area of music; a domain which is characteristically rich in emotional content. Methods. Fourteen children with autism and Asperger syndrome and their age and intelligence matched controls were tested for their ability to identify the affective connotations of melodies in the major or minor musical mode. They were required to match musical fragments with schematic representations of happy and sad faces. Results. The groups did not differ in their ability to ascribe the musical examples to the two affective categories. Conclusions. In contrast to their performance within social and interpersonal domains, children with autistic disorders showed no deficits in processing affect in musical stimuli.

Hmm? Here we’ve been told all kinds of fairy tales, numerous times, about autistic people being unable to empathize, and heavens only know what else, and yet they are just as adept as anyone else at matching musical samples to emotions. This puts an entirely different light on the autism-spectrum disorders and what we “know” about their effect on the affected person’s emotional and social life.

Now when we think about the implications of this research then we begin to wonder: can we use music to train and enhance the “processing of affective information within social and interpersonal domains”? Philosophers back to the days of ancient Greece thought that music had universal qualities. That may or may not be true, but this is evidence that music has qualities that even those who have difficulty with some emotional tasks can recognize without hindrance. And that’s exciting news!

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