Life through stained glass: The impact of autism on musical development

Professor Adam Ockelford, 30th October 2014.

Autistic children often show a fascination for music, but why is this the case? In October 2014 Professor Adam Ockelford of Roehampton University spoke to Goldsmiths’ Music, Mind and Brain students as part of the Invited Speaker series. He reflected on his experiences as both a music teacher and researcher working primarily with autistic individuals, and shared his insights regarding the impact of autism on their musical development.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (meaning that it is characterised by delays in the development of many basic skills), the cause of which is still unknown. It is considered a “spectrum” disorder because of its wide ranging severity, and the variety of presentation in individuals. Despite a significant increase in the prevalence of autism in recent years (Elsabbagh et al., 2012), the disorder remains largely misunderstood in today’s society. Prof. Ockelford gave three key insights into what autism might feel like from the inside:

Autistic individuals focus on detail rather than a coherent whole – the world is seen like a jumbled stained glass window

Autistic individuals focus on detail rather than a coherent whole – the world is seen like a jumbled stained glass window

1) Fragmented perception. Prof. Ockelford used an analogy of a stained glass window in which the pieces are jumbled to describe autistic individuals’ focus on detail at the expense of the perception of a coherent whole. This phenomenon is explained by Happé’s (2013) “Weak central coherence theory” and is linked to a fascination with patterns and detail, which is exhibited by artists with autism such as the renowned Stephen Wiltshire (click here to see some of his work).

2) Difficulties with feelings and particularly with understanding the emotions of others. This may be the result of problems with Theory of Mind”, a term initially coined by Simon Baron-Cohen to describe the ability to “impute beliefs to others and to predict their behaviour” (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).

3) Finding language distressing, or as Prof. Ockelford described it “like dynamite in their ears”. He likened their difficulty in understanding language to sitting in a room full of radios in various languages and not being able to turn them off, or focus on a single voice.

Although these three facets might seem like deficits, when thinking about them in terms of music we can see them in a different light. Weak central coherence may explain the extraordinary fact that absolute pitch (the ability to identify a note without any reference tone), is a lot more common in the autistic population (1 in 20) compared to the general population (1 in 10,000, Heaton, 2009). One of Ockelford’s students, Freddie, is an incredible example of an autistic child with absolute pitch: he has no need to press down the keys on the piano because he can hear the notes in his head and sings them aloud -pressing the key down is just unnecessary effort!

Ockelford and student, Freddie, who would usually sing the notes he intended rather than press down the keys

Ockelford and student, Freddie, who would usually sing the notes he intended, rather than press down the keys

Furthermore, despite emotions being a problem for most autistic individuals, there is evidence to suggest that they can understand them in music (Allen, Hill, & Heaton, 2009).

As for language problems, Prof. Ockelford illustrates that music is language to many of his students.

Prof. Ockelford suggests that the effects of autism on musicality are due to a tendency in early development for autistic individuals to process everyday sounds in terms of their perceptual quality rather than function. Moreover, Ockelford proposes that whilst neurotypical individuals develop distinct sound processing streams for music, everyday sounds, and language, in those with autism these streams are blurred, and thus all sounds are processed similarly, lacking input from top-down contextual information.

For example, Ockelford describes individuals who are fascinated with everyday sound, and use everyday objects to proactively create sounds, such as making a ‘plant pot gamelan’. Ockelford proposes that sounds in our environment that we tend to ignore, many autistic individuals perceive and process in the way that we process music.

It is no wonder, then, that autism can often lead to enhanced, and occasionally exceptional, musicality. One such example is Derek Paravicini, one of Ockelford’s autistic and blind students who has developed into an extraordinary and unique pianist. Watch this TED talk and you’ll see what we mean:

Musicality isn’t just a ‘side-effect’ of autism, but can also be an incredibly useful tool to autistic individuals, allowing them to create an expressive language, or even a proxy-language. Another of Prof. Ockelford’s students, Theo, communicated through a series of musical fragments that only his mother understood, for example humming a little phrase of “Singing in the rain” meant that the truck he wanted to make needed a roof. Much of music therapy work with autistic individuals aims to develop communication skills, using musical interaction to learn turn-taking and shared attention.

Ockelford and student, Romy, at the piano - Romy is an "obsessive transposer", changing key so quickly that it is hard for Ockelford to keep up

Ockelford and student, Romy, at the piano – Romy is an “obsessive transposer”, changing key so quickly that it is hard for Ockelford to keep up

Each of the students that Prof. Ockelford introduced to us via various video clips had their own extraordinary quirks. For example, one student would only play in the notoriously tricky key of F# major. Another would switch through keys so quickly it was difficult for Ockelford to keep up. Ockelford proposed that this demonstrates the capacity of music to give these children control over their environment and the people around them, something which is essential in their development and massively improves their self-esteem.

Whilst most of Prof. Ockelford’s theories and ideas are based on case studies, emerging evidence is backing him up. For example, Lim (2010) found that music training was more effective than speech training in improving verbal production in low functioning autistic individuals. Another study found that music sessions were much more likely than play sessions to evoke engagement and ‘joy’ in autistic individuals (Kim, Wigram, & Gold, 2009).

Prof. Ockelford set out to explain how autism affects musical development, however it became evident throughout his talk that there is not only an impact of autism on musical development, but also an impact of music on the development of autistic children. This powerful bond between autism and music should be exploited more often, not only to enhance the lives of autistic individuals, but to further our own understanding of both music and autism.

By Suzie Capps, Chris Blake & Hannah Filer

Further reading:

Ockelford, A. (2007). In the key of genius: The extraordinary life of Derek Paravicini. London: Hutchinson.

Ockelford, A. (2013). Music, language and autism. London: Jessica Kingsley


Allen, R., Hill, E., & Heaton, P. (2009). `Hath charms to soothe … ‘An exploratory study of how high-functioning adults with ASD experience music. Autism, 13(1), 21-41.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21, 37-46.

Elsabbagh, M., Divan, G., Koh, Y. J., Kim, Y. S., Kauchali, S., Marcín, C., … Fombonne, E. (2012). Global prevalence of autism and other pervasive developmental disorders. Autism Research, 5(3), 160-179.

Happé, F. (2013). Weak Central Coherence. In F. Volkmar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 3344-3346): New York: Springer.

Heaton, P. (2009). Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1443-1447.

Kim, J., Wigram, T., & Gold, C. (2008). The effects of improvisational music therapy on joint attention behaviors in autistic children: a randomized controlled study. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 38(9), 1758-1766.

Lim, H. (2010). Effect of “Developmental Speech and Language Training Through Music” on Speech Production in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Music Therapy, 47(1), 2-26.

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