Where Patterns Meet Sounds – The Incredible Power of Music in Autism.

December 3rd, 2015 – Professor Adam Ockelford


Imagine listening to the radio at maximum volume in an unintelligible language and being entirely helpless in turning it off. After less than a minute or two, the sounds become overwhelming and distressing. Unfortunately, this experience is very much a reality for some individuals with autism. Autism is a disorder characterised by difficulties in socialisation, understanding metaphorical language and empathising with others. In 2014, it was estimated that approximately 1 in 68 children were on the spectrum, but autism could be as prevalent as 1 in 45 children (“Behind the Science”, 2016). The perceptual pain felt by some of these children can make everyday life incredibly difficult. Language was even described by one as being like “dynamite in their ears.”  Miraculously, though, music seems to provide an area of engagement for children with autism that can help them relax and focus their minds.

Professor Adam Ockelford, the Director of the Applied Music Research Centre at University of Roehampton in London, described some of his experiences with music and children with autism in a lecture in December 2015 at Goldsmiths University of London, as part of the invited speakers series for the Music, Mind and Brain Master’s programme.

To understand why music provides a valuable means of engagement for children with autism, Ockelford first proposes an ecological theory to understanding the developing of hearing. By 12 months of age, the brains of ‘neurotypical’ children have learnt to process sounds in three distinct streams, as shown in the following image (left). However, Ockelford suggests that, in autism, everyday sounds and even speech may be processed as music (see right image; for more information, see Ockelford, 2012).  


It’s well-known that individuals with autism have a love of patterns. Ockelford suggests that this love of pattern may impact on the understanding of speech, in that a child with autism may focus to a greater extent on its perceptual qualities, rather than use it for functional or semantic purposes. Children with autism have have a special affinity for music as Ockelford posits that music is around 80% repetitive. The brains of children with autism search for meaning in the world and are naturally attracted to music. If children with autism process speech as music, and music is highly repetitive, it’s understandable for these children to repeat what they hear. In fact, all children experience this phase in language development known as echolalia (i.e., repetition of heard speech). Typically-developing children quickly grow out of this phase as they learn the semantic meanings behind words. Children with autism can experience this phase for far longer – some remain in it for years, while others never grow out of it. As such, communication becomes an especially difficult task.

Outside of his academic life, Ockelford teaches music to children with autism. Many of these students use music as a means to understand and communicate with their world. Ockelford establishes significant relationships with his students through music. Such a relationship can be seen by following one of Ockelford´s students, Romy (see image below).

The first thing that mattered to Romy was her sound-making toys, and most adored was her small keyboard that helped her to learn how to play various songs. In some ways, the toy was easier for her to understand than peopPicture3le, who are by nature unpredictable, and Romy didn’t like to share her interest in music making with anyone else. But Ockelford was determined to show her that she could use her music to engage with others, and set out to play the piano with her. However, he quickly found that he couldn’t play music she already knew from her small keyboard because it would upset her, nor could he play something new. In the end, she allowed him to play a piece (‘Für Elise’) from her small keyboard slowly, approving one note at a time. But what would happen if he played something she didn’t like? How would she express her dissatisfaction? He taught her to express herself by playing two notes in succession, as if to say “shut up, shut up, shut up.” When Ockelford began to play part of a piece that Romy didn’t like, she first played those two notes in the same key as the piece, thus not having the anticipated effect. She realized this and switched to a different key quickly. This successfully made Ockelford stop playing. So music serves as a proxy-language for Romy. She found that with music, she could be in control of someone else without needing to be aggressive.

Another onPicture4e of Ockelford’s outstanding students is Derek, who has the amazing ability to perform many pieces after only a s
ingle hearing, successfully change keys instantaneously, and has virtuosic improvisational skills. Derek is a well-known savant, who often performs in major public concerts. He has even been featured in a TED Talk presentation and it’s easy to see his fantastic abilities.

From these examples, one can clearly see how strong the connection is between music and autism. As children with autism process everyday sounds and speech as music, it is logical to address the ways to most effectively provide an auditory environment to facilitate learning. Teachers may find it distressing when children with autism seem to disregard their instructions, under the assumption that they had the children’s undivided attention. However, what these teachers may not have understood is that, though the children were listening to their instructions, what they heard was the vocal fluctuations more than the semantic meanings behind the words.

Often, public education systems alienate autistic children by not providing an environment best suited for these children to thrive. Between the loud noises, fluorescent lights, and a jumble of voices, it is understandable that the “dynamite in my ears” phenomenon is a regular occurrence. A learning space more fitting for autistic children would be one that enhances their need for pattern and sound, while being sensitive to the nature of the stimuli presented. Many of these children have amazing capabilities that could flourish under the proper environment.


By Renee Schapiro, Heather Terry, and Fernanda Ureña



Behind the Science: New 1 in 45 autism prevalence survey. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/11/16/behind-science-new-1-45-autism-prevalence-survey

Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford: In the key of genius. (2013, March). Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_paravicini_and_adam_ockelford_in_the_key_of_genius?language=e

Ockelford, A. (2012) Applied Musicology: Using Music Theory to Inform Music Psychology, Education and Therapy Research, Oxford University Press.

Ockelford, A. (2015). The impact of autism on musical development. Personal Collection of A. Ockelford, University of Roehampton, London, UK.









This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s