The Exceptional World of Blind and Autistic Children

Gaining understanding through music.

Adam Ockelford PhD, Southlands College, University of Roehampton

24 November 2011

When watching the countless YouTube videos of the often extraordinary talents of blind and autistic children, many of us cannot imagine having these exceptional musical skills at such a young age. But why, with their social and perceptual impairments and difficulties communicating, would blind and autistic children develop such impressive musicianship?

Adam Ockelford spoke on this topic on 24th November 2011 to the Music, Mind and Brain students at Goldsmiths’ College. Well-known as teacher to Derek Paravicini, a blind, autistic musical savant, Ockelford has worked with many children with such developmental differences, and he has developed a theory for their musical development based on their exceptional early cognitive environments (EECEs).

Autism, present in about 1% of children, is characterised by impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and stereotyped behaviours. These obstacles often manifest in difficulties in social reciprocation as in conversation or peer relationships (Boomsma, et al., 2008). Similarly, blind children may also have difficulties with shared attention because of lack of visual input. 

Ockelford cites that these differences cause blind and autistic children to experience the world differently in following ways: an early fascination with everyday sounds that have musical qualities (like the vacuum cleaner), the tendency to flick and strike objects like glasses and bowls to produce sounds, and difficulties understanding the representational quality of language. This different understanding of the world leads Ockelford to posit his first hypothesis about the consequences of EECEs: all sounds are processed in musical terms. A blind or autistic child may not be interested in the function of the vacuum cleaner or a water glass, but they will attend to the pure tones produced by the objects.

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Adam Ockelford

Perhaps resulting from this fascination with pure tones, there is a higher prevalence of absolute pitch in blind and autistic individuals (4 in 10 for blind and 1 in 20 for autistic, compared to 1 in 10,000 in Western cultures). Absolute pitch, according to Deutsch, Henthorn, and Dolson (2004), is “the ability to name or produce a note of particular pitch in the absence of a reference note” (p. 339). Deutsch, et al. (2004) propose that absolute pitch is a trait with which everyone is born, but to be exhibited, it must be cultivated through language development.

Ockelford challenges, however, that absolute pitch could develop outside of language; for blind and autistic children, absolute pitch seems to precede the ability to name notes. Ockelford expanded this argument by showing a video of Freddie, age 10, an autistic student who pretends to “play” notes on the piano not by hovering his fingers over the keys while he sings the pitch. Ockelford joked that Freddie had no reason to play the notes because he could hear them in his head, and wasn’t that just redundant?

Ockelford also proposes, based on case studies from his blind and autistic students, that absolute pitch is acquired. For one child, Nick, age 4, Ockelford noticed a change from reproducing simple pieces in C to reproducing simple pieces in their ‘correct’ key.

Ockelford then moved on to his second EECE theory that declares that blind and autistic children process sounds in music-structural terms. Because language is full of complex syntax and semantics and its development is mostly visually driven, it is hard for autistic or blind children to achieve language skills.

Music, however, does not require external symbols but rather consists of non-semantic patterns that often repeat or imitate each other. This self-referential nature of music allows blind and autistic children to use it as communication.

Ockelford underlines his arguments with a brilliant example of the very common and popular song, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. As shown in the figure below, the song is characterised by a very simple pattern (two repeated crotchets) that is copied and imitated throughout the song. Overall the song is 80% repetitive and it can be understood because the ‘notes point to each other’ instead of relating to an external meaning. 

Because music is repetitive and self-referential, autistic and blind children may use music as a proxy language and use musical structures to express themselves. A common phenomenon is that autistic and blind children have echolalia, a “disordered speech in which an individual persistently repeats what it hears” (Zapor, Murphy & Enzenauer, 2001, p. 70). By repeating words, the children attempt to process language at a simple, repetitive level, more like music processing (for more information about echolalia, see Saad & Goldfeld, 2009).

To summarise the two theories, EECE1 states that autistic and blind children process all sounds in musical terms, and EECE2 predicts that these children process sounds in musical structural terms. What, therefore, are the consequences of EECE1 and EECE2? Ockelford predicts three outcomes resulting from the exceptional early cognitive environment theories, as shown in the graph below: exceptional musicality, self-taught instrumental skills, and using music as an expressive, proxy language.

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Possible outcomes for the consequences of exceptional early cognitive environments: processing all sounds as musical sounds and processing sounds in terms of musical-structures.

As blind and autistic children process everyday sounds as music and use musical structures to express themselves, they often develop exceptional musicality or self-taught instrumental skills. Music also becomes a tool to communicate and sometimes they even create a proxy language. Ockelford demonstrated this by presenting a video of little Theo, age 2, who has invented a proxy language made of music-like sounds and hummed musical fragments, which enable him to communicate with his mother who has learned to understand him. 

The expansion of these skills can be even more extreme if a child is both blind and autistic. An outstanding example of this brings us back to Derek Paravicini. Derek’s ability to remember and recreate pieces he has heard only once seems unparalleled.

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While Ockelford’s theories are rooted mainly in case studies and personal experiences, his line of reasoning was very impressive and empirical studies could be used to validate his hypotheses. One study that bolsters Ockelford’s argument was conducted by Daweson, Warrenburg, and Fuller (1982) who found greater right hemisphere activation in autistic participants during a language task. Normally, during a linguistic task, the left hemisphere is dominant, whereas the right hemisphere would be expected to be dominant in a music listening task (Altenmüller, 2001). With Ockelford’s behavioural evidence that language and music are not as separated in autistic individuals, this physiological evidence makes sense.

As an extension of the Daweson, et al. (1982) study, additional insight might be gained from an EEG study of the lateralization of auditory evoked potentials (AEP), specifically comparing linguistic processing with musical processing in blind and autistic children and adults. The study could be performed while the children are sleeping by presenting two types of stimuli: short stories and melodies. This study could confirm Ockelford’s argument that music processing happens differently in blind and autistic individuals.

Overall, Ockelford’s hypotheses allow us insight into the ways autistic and blind people may understand the world. As Trisha Van Berkel writes, “It is about finding a way to survive in an overwhelming, confusing world…It is about developing differently, in a different pace with different leaps.” 

 Ruth Reveal & Nora Schaal

References:

Altenmüller, E.O. (2001). How many music centres are in the brain? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 930, 273-280

Boomsma, A., Van Lang, N.D.J., De Jonge, M.V., De Bildt, A.A., Van Engeland, H., & Minderaa, R.B. (2008). A new symptom model for autism cross-validated in an independent sample. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(8), 809-816.

Dawson, G., Warrenburg, S., & Fuller, P. (1982). Cerebral lateralization in individuals diagnosed as autistic in early childhood. Brain and Language, 15, 353-368.

Deutsch, D., Henthorn, T., & Dolson, M. (2004). Absolute pitch, speech, and tone language: Some experiments and a proposed framework. Music Perception, 21(3), 339-356.

Saad, A. G. de Faria & Goldfeld, M. (2009). Echolalia in the language development of autistic individuals: a bibliographical review. Pro-fono: revista de atualizacaocientifica, 21(39), 255-60

Van Berkel, T. Autism Alert Wiltshire. Retrieved from http://www.autismalertwilts.com/index.htm

Zapor, M., Murphy, F. T., Enzenauer, R. (2001). Echolalia as a manifestation of neuropsychiatric systemic lopus erythematosus. Southern Medical Journal, 94(1), 70-72

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